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Meet the Jewish Teen Who Is Helping the Homeless

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BEN HOFFNER-BRODSKY says growing up in Davis, California gave him a strong sense of civic duty. It felt natural to him to get involved with Youth Leadership Davis (YLD) as an intern. Through the YLD program, high school students undergo rigorous training so they can serve at homeless shelters as informed volunteers.

The Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter (IRWS) in Davis was never “supposed” to work, as it enlists mostly untrained and unpaid volunteers to help with shelter services. But Ben says because of YLD and the amazing community he grew up in, the shelter has become hugely successful.

Ben is currently a student lead for YLD and a member of the Board of Directors for IRWS. These are just some of the reasons he is a 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards recipient.

We got to chat with Ben about community, responsibility, and juggling.

Speaking with Benjamin Hoffner-Brodsky: 

What was it like growing up in Davis, California?

Comfortable, communal, and constricting. Davis is a great place to raise kids. It’s a really safe area which meant that from a pretty young age I was comfortable talking with anyone I met and exploring everything the town has to offer. A big part of the reason I was able to take on multiple projects at a time is that there were few barriers to doing so where I grew up.

Davis has a stronger sense of community than any similarly sized town I’ve ever been to. We take looking out for our neighbors very seriously and like to overcome obstacles together. As a result, it was pretty natural that when the community decided that we needed to do something to provide more resources for the Davis homeless population that our entire approach would be based off of community.

While I’ve loved growing up in Davis, it’s also fairly limiting. I often found that the resources to pursue some of my interests such as business and politics just didn’t exist in the area. I like to think that I’ve made the most of what my town has to offer and I’m even more excited to take full advantage of being a university student in a large city.

What was your favorite afternoon activity as a kid?

I used to love fixing computers. I used to help my friends and neighbors fix their misbehaving tech and I’d buy old beat up computers from the thrift store as a project. My room looked like an IT storage locker.

Can you tell me about the first days of the Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter?

A couple years back I had the chance to speak with a retired Davis police officer who was on the force when the shelter first started. He shared with me how the entire department was confident that the shelter wouldn’t last more than a year, and for good reason. The idea that a group of largely untrained, unpaid volunteers could host dozens of individuals, many of whom had been in and out of police custody, seemed unfeasible. What they didn’t predict is the sense of community that formed almost instantly.

One of the first times I came to the shelter, an issue arose when one of the guests started harassing one of the college interns. Immediately, three other guests got up to pull the guest in question back and explain to him why his actions were unacceptable. Even from the beginning, the shelter worked because everyone, guests and volunteers alike, were committed to making it work.

How do you recruit and train your interns?

We recruit a small group of passionate students to keep the program personal and at a reasonable scale in proportion to the size of the shelter. Our number one source of recruitment is recommendations from current and past members. YLD students reach out to other kids who they believe have the maturity to join the program. Interning at the shelter is an intense experience for anyone so we only invite students who are ready to join on. We have a rigorous training process to make sure that every student is prepared for any possible incident at the shelter.

We train students in areas ranging from mental health services to conflict resolution, bring in veteran volunteers and police officers to speak to the group, and run through dozens of different mock exercises so that students could go through the motions of running the shelter in their sleep. From the outside, our training process can seem like overkill. In the shelter’s ten years of operation, no intern has ever been put in danger or reached an obstacle that they haven’t been able to overcome with help. We have such a high training standard to make sure that students are confident in their own abilities and authority when they first walk into the shelter and to function as in-depth leadership training that is relevant far outside of the shelter environment.

How do you juggle this with school and the rest of your life?

I’ve always been bad at juggling. When juggling balls, you’re only ever handling a couple at a time and yet your attention is split between all of the balls you’re juggling. I try to do the opposite with my commitments. No matter how long my to-do list is, each item gets my absolute undivided attention.

Despite that, I’ve learned to jump between them. I frequently find myself contacting a new business client while waiting for a shelter meeting, writing emails between (and sometimes during) classes at school, and reserving cafe time that I divide between my commitments. I’ve consistently found that the more I take on, the easier each individual item becomes. As long as my to-do list is full of tasks I love for causes I believe in, adding more just makes me more efficient at doing each and, because many of the programs I’m involved with intersect and overlap with each other, the quality of the work I do increases too.

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What’s your favorite memory of being at the shelter?

My favorite memory of being at the shelter was when my synagogue first started hosting. One of the Jewish youth groups made up of pre-teens came in to help serve food and visit with the guests. At first, all of the kids seemed intimidated. They all congregated together at one table, afraid to venture off into the unknown. We’re taught to fear people we don’t know, and folks in the homeless community seem even farther away. As the night went on, I introduced the students one by one to some of the guests at other tables.

Slowly, every kid realized that the people they were talking to weren’t any different than their friends or their parents. There was an almost magical feeling in the room. You could sense the kids’ barriers and preconceived notions falling away with each passing moment, and the guests seemed rejuvenated by the youth and energy of their visitors. For me, that’s what the shelter is all about. It’s about creating a community where guests are treated the same as visitors, everyone eating the same food, under the same roof, and sharing their stories.

What’s the hardest part about being at the shelter?

The hardest part of being at the shelter is the sense of helplessness I, and many of my peers, experience as a volunteer. Every night at the shelter guests tell me stories of the various challenges they’re facing and losses they’ve suffered that have led to them to being at the shelter. While the shelter provides important basic services, we could never even begin to address most of the underlying issues people are facing.

A big part of what we teach our YLD interns to do is to listen to and empathize with our guests. Taking on that weight while knowing there’s nothing you can do is an awful feeling. One of the reasons that YLD is a separate group instead of just hiring interns through IRWS is that our weekly meetings and discussions provide an outlet for students to voice their frustrations, share their stories, and hopefully relieve some the weight from being at the shelter.

What’s next for the YLD and IRWS campaigns?

Both programs will continue to run after I leave. I place a great deal of confidence in the rest of the IRWS Board of Directors and in the students of YLD who have spent the last couple of years honing the “L” portion of YLD. Both programs are also embarking on substantial journeys to change the ways in which they interact with the community. YLD is developing into a more independent group from the shelter that I expect to be taking on an increasing number of responsibilities.

The group is starting to take on more projects to provide resources for members of the homeless community such as item drives, fundraising, and advocacy. Similarly, IRWS is in the midst of transitioning from focusing all of its efforts into providing safe beds and hot meals to now becoming a focal point for homeless services in the area. In the last couple of years, we’ve worked on a structural overhaul to shift from a central management model to a decentralized team model. As the efforts of those teams continue to grow in the coming years, I expect the shelter to have the bandwidth to connect guests with services such as substance abuse counseling, permanent housing, and job openings.

How about you? After high school, any plans?

I deferred my college admissions for a year. I’ll be spending the first half of my gap year travelling through Europe with my girlfriend while working remotely and the second working or interning somewhere. I didn’t feel such a rush to jump straight into my next academic commitment. After my year off, in the fall of 2018, I’ll be starting as a freshman at Harvard. I haven’t yet decided on a course of study; I’m considering fields ranging from Economics or International Relations to Physics or Mathematics or maybe Psychology or Comparative Literature. I’ll most likely wait until the last minute possible before declaring the most interdisciplinary major I can think of.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

If I could have one superpower it would definitely be time control. I’m a big believer in the power of an individual: that humans can understand each other without telepathy, understand the future without clairvoyance, and reach astounding places without teleportation. The constant limiting factor in each of these cases is time. Without the constraints of time, I truly believe that anything is possible.

Anything else you’d like to say about getting this great award from the Diller Foundation?

To me, this honor from the Diller Foundation is a show of trust in my generation. The continuity and scale of this program speak to the idea that young activists and change-makers should be treated as examples, rather than exceptions. The Diller Foundation puts trust in a younger generation at a time when myself and my peers are frequently characterized as lazy, unmotivated, and ungrateful on the basis of age and for that I am eternally grateful.

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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