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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Teen lends a helping hand in volunteer program

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Kayla Esser and other volunteers dig up a driveway at a Habitat for Humanity house. 

For some young people, one summer can make all the difference. Nearly three months after returning from the American Jewish Society for Service’s summer program, 16-year-old Kayla Esser still feels energized and motivated to help in her community.

This summer, Esser and 15 other Jewish students travelled to Springfield, Ill., to volunteer with local charities and community service groups.

“It was very eye-opening,” Esser said. “You hear about poverty at school and on the news, but it never really registers until you actually see communities where there’s need.”

After every activity, they would discuss how it related to Judaism and what it meant to do volunteer work, she said.

As part of the program, which ran June 26 to Aug. 7, Esser and her peers travelled across the United States to engage in a wide range of volunteer activities, including working with the United Cerebral Palsy camp, the Boys and Girls Club of Springfield, Habitat for Humanity, Edge Outreach and the Springfield Community Gardens.

Among their tasks was “mitzvah clowning,” where the group learned to dress as clowns to entertain and cheer up patients at children’s hospitals and retirement homes.

“That was a first for me,” Esser recalled. “For kids, we got to make balloon animals and tell jokes. With the older people, ‘clowning’ was mostly talking to them about their life experiences. They had really interesting stories.”

Esser now hopes to start a mitzvah clowning group with her friends in Toronto so that they can volunteer at children’s hospitals.

A student at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, Esser said the six-week volunteering trip gave her an opportunity to experience a real-life application of the Jewish values she learned in school.

“It was very rewarding to get out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It helped me build a stronger Jewish identity and learn about myself and the world around me.”

When they were volunteering, the group also travelled across the United States, visiting Louisville, Chicago, Missouri and Memphis to meet with local leaders and spend Shabbat at different synagogues.

One weekend, they taught members of a church community about Passover and what it meant to be Jewish.

“For some of the people there, we were the first Jews they met. It was really cool to teach them about our faith, and to learn from them too,” she said.

“One child from the Boys and Girls Club thanked us for teaching him to be a better person and said he was proud to call us his friends. It was really touching that we’d made a difference for him,” she said.

Now that she’s back, Esser is ready to continue volunteering, and said she feels inspired by the people she met and wants to bring back that dedication to her community. In addition to volunteering at Out of Cold and at Toronto’s Beth Torah synagogue, Esser and her father will be working with Habitat for Humanity.

The American Jewish Society for Service, now celebrating its 60th anniversary, runs volunteer programs in different locations every year. For more information on their programs, visit www.ajss.org.

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