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Archive for : AmeriCorps

Destination Detroit

by Devon Rubenstein and Emily Phillips

If you told us when we were still students at the University of Michigan that we would graduate to organizing monthly service days for Michigan State, we would have said, “Thanks but no thanks, AmeriCorps!” Of course, we are only kidding, but the rivalry did have a funny way of initially affecting our enthusiasm for the partnership. And yet the true colors of volunteering have overcome school colors to create Destination Detroit. 
Destination Detroit is a partnership of Repair the World and MSU Hillel, which brings diverse student groups together through service and shared experiences in Detroit. On monthly Fridays throughout the year, groups of about 40 students come from East Lansing to Detroit for a fun-filled day of volunteering, sightseeing and, of course, food. The participating groups include:
  • Arab Cultural Society
  • Asian Pacific American Student Organization
  • Black Student Alliance
  • Camp Kesem
  • Culturas de las Razas Unidas
  • The Greek Community
  • Jewish Student Union
  • Student Housing Cooperative (Co-Op)

For our most recent Destination Detroit, we partnered with Davison, a Detroit elementary and middle school known for its dedicated teachers and creative curriculum. For a testament to Davison’s commitment to education, look no further than Judy Robinson, who recently retired after teaching kindergarten at Davison for 39 years, still volunteers there, and was integral to bringing Destination Detroit to her school.

Davison has attracted a large population of Detroit and Hamtramck’s recent immigrants from Bangladesh. (More on Hamtramck below.) and attracts a large population of Bengali students. The diversity of both the Davison and MSU students enriched everyone’s experience, but the day’s theme — Science Rules! — showed us we had more in common than we thought.

Room One: Ecosystem Art!
How could college volunteers and elementary school students who’d never met before create individual works of science-themed art that would then be combined to beautify the school? Enthusiastically, it turns out. Each grade tackled an ecosystem — ocean, desert, and forest — with students and volunteers decorating their own sheets using found objects like pine needles, cotton balls, paper bags, and shiny fragments from old CDs (ones we feverishly broke prior with gloves and bolt cutters). While each kid’s picture was great on its own, the truly spectacular part of the project was seeing hundreds of these pictures collaged together and mounted in the hallway.

Room Two: Science Experiments!
Pennies don’t command much respect as currency these days, but they are are great for experiments. 1. Inertia: resting pennies on an index card on a cup and trying to get pennies to drop directly into a cup while only moving the index card. (It’s harder than it sounds.) 2. Chemical Reactions: testing to see whether dish soap or hot sauce (Sriracha, in case you’re curious) would clean the tarnish off pennies. If you’re anything like our friends a Davison, you’ll be amazed by which worked.

Room Three: Food Chain!
Classes created their own ecological rock-paper-scissors with predator, prey and producer — replete with pantomime. For example, lion eats antelope, which eats grass, which survives lion. Elementary and college students faced off repeatedly, transitioning accordingly (i.e. in Lion vs. Antelope, Lion stayed Lion and Antelope became Lion) and learning about ecological balance and interdependence in the most chaotic way imaginable.

Destination Detroit blends service and Detroit experiences in a way that always manages to excite, engage and exhaust everyone. After many hugs and high fives at Davison, the MSU students ventured into the cold for a tour of the amazing work by Powerhouse Productions, including the Ride It Sculpture Park, Sound House and Power House. Then, out of the cold — and, for that matter, out of Detroit — to Hamtramck, a city surrounded by the City. At the Polish Art Center, we learned from residents (experts and authors) about the rich immigrant history that preceded the current wave of Bengalis and Yemenis who now fill many of Hamtramck’s homes and storefronts. And the trip would not have been complete without pierogi, stuffed cabbage and more from Polonia.

Repair Interview: Mariel Venhuizen on Joining the Peace Corps

Right now, 25-year old Mariel Venhuizen is in the air, flying to Mongolia. It’s a long way from her home town in Los Angeles, but she’s used to traveling – and service. 10 days ago, she got home from a year-long stint in Seattle with AmeriCorps, where she also worked as a Repair the World J-Connect intern at the University of Washington’s Hillel. And now she’s on her way to Mongolia to join the Peace Corps for the next two years.

In between her adventures, Mariel – a self described “nonprofit obsessive” – took the time to speak to Repair the World about her passion for travel and helping others, and why she’s particularly psyched to take this next step.

What made you decide to apply for the Peace Corps?
Travel has always been a big passion for me. I studied abroad in Italy during my junior year of college, and having that opportunity to travel internationally heightened my awareness of the world and what was out there. I also did a service trip with [Repair the World grantee-partner] JDC and spent two years with AmeriCorps, one in Louisiana and one I just finished Seattle. Believe it or not, a year goes by really quickly, so I’m looking forward to spending two years away and having a chance to acclimate somewhere while doing meaningful service work.

Where are you going?
I’m going to Mongolia – I’ll be amongst the 23rd group of volunteers to go with Peace Corps. I didn’t jump up and down when I found out that’s where I’d be going, but I’ve since learned that volunteers there seem to have an incredible experience. A lot of them request to extend their service for a third year and find other ways to return. I’m really excited for the challenge.
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Care to Share Gathers Over Two Thousand Pounds of Food

This article is excerpted from UJA-Federation News.

Try to picture 3.3 million grains of rice. If that’s too challenging, you could also visualize 200,000 grapes, 35,000 eggs, 4,000 pomegranates, 440 watermelons, or 220 pumpkins. Each of these quantities of food weighs a solid ton, which is the amount of fresh produce collected during UJA-Federation’s first annual Care to Share fresh food drive in conjunction with Met Council, Hazon, and AmeriCorps.

This year’s program far surpassed its initial goal of collecting 1,000 pounds of food for those in need.

Synagogues and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups from all over the city, as well as Westchester and Long Island, contributed to the program’s success and many participants have expressed an interest in taking part again next year. Local soup kitchens and food pantries worked together with each of the collection sites to distribute the fresh produce on the same day it was donated.

Read the remainder of the article here an learn more about Care to Share here.

Check out Repair the World’s post on the Care to Share program (plus a great video) here.

Donate Fresh Produce to Your Local Food Pantry with Care to Share (Video)

File this under awesome: Hazon, AmeriCorps, The Met Council and the UJA Federation are teaming up to help bring more fresh produce to local food pantries and to combat food insecurity this Sukkot with their Care to Share program.

From now through Oct 18, gardeners, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, and anyone with good access to fresh produce in the New York area is invited to share a portion of their produce for distribution to a local food pantry. It’s as easy as finding a drop-off site near you, and bringing in your veggies.

Judaism has a tradition of “gleaning.” Back in the day, farmers would leave the four corners of their fields unharvested from which the needy could glean with dignity. Today, food deserts pervade our country. In many cities  including New York, low-income communities tend to have far less access to healthy fruits and vegetables than other neighborhoods. In some communities, there are literally no grocery stores, making it all the more challenging to feed healthy food to one’s family.
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So it’s not all about tikkun olam?

Brookline native Emily Raine began volunteering in high school. She volunteered throughout college, joined AmeriCorps while working towards her master’s degree, and continues volunteering today as a young professional.

When she talks about volunteering, she doesn’t talk a lot about tikkun olam or tzedakah. She talks about civil obligation and cultural understanding.

“For me, service is about exposure and connection,” Raine, 31, said. “It’s about having an opportunity to understand the larger community through a broader lens.”

She’s not alone.

A recent survey conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications found that while a large majority of Jews between 18 and 35 volunteer for social causes, few identify the practice with Jewish values.

“Most Jewish young adults don’t connect their Jewish identity, values and heritage to their volunteer work,” said Fern Chertok, the study’s lead researcher at the Cohen Center.

The study found that while 72 percent of young Jews volunteered in the past 12 months, only 10 percent worked primarily with Jewish organizations.

It’s not surprising, Chertok said, given many young people don’t connect their Jewish identity to most parts of their life.

“[Young people] are happy and proud to be Jewish, but it’s not salient in their day-to-day life,” she said.

Other findings include: Seventy-eight percent of respondents said it did not matter if their volunteer organization was Jewish or not. Orthodox Jews have the highest percentage of volunteers at 86 percent. Those who identified as Other (including Reconstructionist) had an 81 percent volunteer rate; Reform, 77 percent; and Conservative, 66 percent. More Jewish women volunteer than men. Seventy-eight percent of females have volunteered in the past year, compared to 63 percent of males. While only 1 percent of participants said they volunteer on Israel related projects, 9 percent expressed interest in volunteering in Israel and the Middle East.

The study was commissioned by Repair the World, a Jewish service organization, to figure out how to better engage young Jews in Jewish-sponsored service.
The study surveyed 951 young Jews from across the country. It was administered online and by phone. The researchers drew on a pool of more than 300,000 applicants to the Taglit-Birthright Israel program and from Knowledge Networks, a national online research panel.

Among volunteer activities cited were mentoring or tutoring under-privileged children or adults; working at a food pantry or clothing distribution center; and building or repairing homes.

The survey found that the more involved someone was in Jewish life, the more likely they were to volunteer.

But most young people identified volunteering as a universal – not Jewish – value, according to Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World.

“This is the most diverse generation,” Rosenberg said. “They are incredibly tolerant of differences and hesitant to feel that lines are being drawn around them and around their identity. They construct their identity out of many different sources.”

Respondents were asked to rate the reasons why they volunteer on a scale from one to seven – seven being the most important reason, one being the least important.
The response “to make a difference in people’s lives” averaged a 6. “It is a Jewish value to help those in need” averaged a 3.9.

The survey found that most young people were interesting in volunteering for organizations that assisted the needy, worked in healthcare, and promoted education or literacy.

The survey also found was that while a large majority of young Jews donate time or money to a social cause, few do so on a regular basis.

Only 5 percent of those surveyed volunteer once a week. Thirty percent volunteer once every few months.

Here in Boston, the Jewish community is a little ahead of the curve, according to Nahma Nadich, director of Social Justice Programs at the Jewish Community Relations Council.

For several years, the organization had been trying to launch a young adult volunteering program with little success, Nadich said.

So, like Repair the World, JCRC conducted its own, albeit smaller, survey. It invited a group of young Jewish volunteers to meet with program coordinators and discuss possible volunteer activities.

Young Jews told JCRC they were concerned with issues of education and literacy; they were looking for a way to connect their Jewish values to a broader community; and they wanted programs where they could see tangible results.

After that meeting, JCRC designed and launched Reach Out, a nine-week program than funnels Jewish volunteers to primarily non- Jewish organizations. For example, they work with United South End Settlements, helping South End and Lower Roxbury residents prepare for their GED exam.

It is a successful young adult volunteer program, Nadich said, because it reflects the generational concerns of its volunteers.

“They want to be stakeholders, not just consumers of volunteer programs,” Nadich said. “They want to know they are having an impact and are building a community.”

The national survey revealed a similar mentality across the country.

“These millennials believe they can make a difference and they really want to do so,” Chertok said.

Like JCRC, Repair the World is expanding its partner organizations even further beyond the Jewish community. In Detroit, it is connecting the Jewish Coalition for Literacy with the local United Way, Rosenberg said.

The survey can also help Jewish organizations attract young volunteers, Chertok said.

“Service is an important part of contemporary life,” she said. “The more we understand it, the more we can cast a wider net and engage young people in more regular and meaningful volunteering.”

Even though Emily Raine didn’t cite Jewish values as the main reason for volunteering, she said she still wanted to connect to the Jewish community. She said she found in Reach Out an organization that bridged the Jewish and broader community here in Boston.

Raine helped two women study for their GED by having them practice grammar and vocabulary by reading aloud from young adult novels.

When they began, the women stumbled through the chapters.

By the end of the nine weeks, both women were reading “beautifully.” That impact, said Raine, was reason enough to volunteer.