cool teens

Meet the Jewish Teen Who’s Helping Disadvantaged Students Get School Supplies

jessica goldberg

The Challenge: There are over a million schoolchildren in the United States today who don’t have basic school supplies.

The Solution: Performing for Pencils.

The Teen Who’s Making A Brighter Future: Jessica Goldberg, 17, of St. Louis, Missouri.

Jessica has been dancing and acting for over a decade. She also has a heart of gold. While volunteering as a teaching assistant at St. Louis Aim High, Jessica was shocked to see how often her students lacked the basic tools they needed. She decided to combine her passion for performing with her drive to help students in need.

In August 2013, Jessica co-founded Performing for Pencils, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides disadvantaged school students with the school supplies they need to be successful learners. Jessica enlisted her fellow performers from across the St. Louis area to host an annual high school community talent show.

Thanks to Jessica and her team, Performing for Pencils has raised $35,000 for struggling schools. She’s also opened the discussion about racial and socioeconomic divides and given her peers a creative way to make a difference. This year, Jessica received a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award for dedicated work.

We asked Jessica a few questions about how Performing for Pencils came to be.

What’s your happiest memory of growing up in St. Louis?
One of my happiest memories of growing up in St. Louis is seasonal apple and peach-picking with my family. We have a day filled with laughter and fun, and we come home and bake cobblers and other scrumptious treats together.

Who would you say had the greatest positive influence on your life as a kid?
I would say my Hebrew tutor, Carol Rubin, had the most significant positive influence on me as a kid. She is a warm, nurturing mentor who not only taught me Hebrew and educated me about Jewish traditions, beliefs, and culture, but she instilled in me a sense of confidence and a belief that I could achieve anything.

What’s your favorite song?
Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

Your favorite book?
To Kill a Mockingbird.”

When did you start acting and dancing?
At age 4 in junior kindergarten, I began taking dance lessons. As a third grader, I appeared in my first theater production at my elementary school. My passion for stage performance grew exponentially from there.

Do you have any favorite shows or roles?
One of my fondest memories was playing the role of Mary Sue Betty Bob in “Dear Edwina,” and belting out the unforgettable “Put it in the Piggy.”

What was that first community talent show like?
The first annual Performing for Pencils show in 2014 was exhilarating. Miss Missouri, Shelby Ringdahl, was dynamite as emcee, and the performers were so charged up about the idea of coming together for kids in need of school supplies. As hundreds of people poured into the theater, I was terrified the whole thing would blow up with such little time for rehearsals and light/sound checks. But it turned out to be fabulous and we grew mountains of support from there.

What did it feel like when you handed out that first shipment of school supplies?
Handing out the first truckloads of school supplies to the St. Louis City Public Schools in 2014 was an extraordinary experience. As someone who loves to learn and feels passionate about school, seeing these students’ faces light up when they were handed new school supplies was electric. I could feel the excitement and energy, and I knew the supplies would make a difference in motivating these kids to tackle their homework.

How exactly do you collect and distribute all these supplies?
While people do bring supplies to my house year-round, the vast majority of the supplies are collected on the night of the annual talent show. There is no charge for admission to the talent show. Rather, Performing for Pencils asks that audience members donate school supplies instead. The school districts identify which schools within their districts are most in need of supplies.

Do you ever have people who are receiving supplies perform in your shows?
Yes, an incredible tap group performed in the 2014 show from a magnet school in St. Louis that received supplies, and a school choir from another recipient school performed in our 2015 show.

What’s the hardest part about running Performing for Pencils?
High school students can be unpredictable. Just when it seems the line-up of performers is complete, someone develops an unexpected conflict or cancels shortly before the show. I am always scrambling last minute to find an act or two.

The most rewarding part?
In addition to the obvious reward of seeing these bright, motivated students from challenging and disadvantaged backgrounds receive these much-needed supplies, there is the additional reward of community building. As I reach out to over 100 high schools spanning all four corners of St. Louis to conduct auditions and scout talent, I am overwhelmed by the willingness of my fellow entertainers to help me help others. The incredibly engaging performers range from vocalists, dancers, and magicians to acrobats, comedians, and even a hula-hooping contortionist. They represent different ethnic, cultural, religious, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. When people come to a Performing for Pencils show and see firsthand the magic and power of diversity and inclusiveness, the desire to unite a community becomes contagious.

What’s next for the Performing for Pencils campaign?
Next on the horizon will be passing the torch of leadership to two younger students (freshmen in high school) who will be taking it over as my co-founder and I head to college in August. They have been shadowing us for the past year and are ready to take over the show. I hope that wherever I land for college, I’ll be able to inspire performers to join me in starting a Performing for Pencils in that city. I’d love to see Performing for Pencils grow nationwide.

How about you? After high school, any plans?
As I anxiously await to hear from several universities, I am excited about the next chapter in my life. I look forward to pursuing a career in education and working to ensure that students have the tools they need to be successful learners.

Anything else you’d like to say about Performing for Pencils or your Tikkun Olam award?
The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award has helped me put Performing for Pencils on the map. Their dedication to supporting and encouraging teens with a passion for service and volunteerism is life-changing. I will be forever grateful to the awards committee for their belief in me and Performing for Pencils.


This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org.


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Abby Sher

Abby Sher is a writer, performer, and mom to three cool beans. Her memoir, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying got lots of awards from people like Oprah. She writes regularly for The New York Times and The Jewniverse and wears a bike helmet to bed.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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