This Jewish Teen Uses Smartphones to Get Her Peers to Volunteer – Kveller
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This Jewish Teen Uses Smartphones to Get Her Peers to Volunteer

Helena Zimmerman

It’s not that Helena Zimmerman, 17, doesn’t like after-school extracurriculars or hanging out with her friends. As she says, “I’m a teenager, too.”  But her favorite place to go on any given afternoon is the community center, where she teaches baking, budgetary planning, English as a second language, and entrepreneurship.

And thanks to her non-profit, TeensGive.org, she now has a growing team of volunteers right there beside her.

Helena and her co-founder, Max, thought of TeensGive because they always loved community service and wanted to make it more accessible for other teenagers. So far, TeensGive.org has 4,000 student members and 300 virtual tutors who tutor on their virtual volunteering platform all over the country. With in-person tutoring, virtual tutoring, and entrepreneurship workshops, TeensGive is designed by teens who are “socially conscious disruptors reimagining teen volunteerism.”

Helena is a 2018 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards for her innovation and altruism.

What’s your favorite subject in school?
Math. I’ve always loved Math. I’ve never been good with language.

Can you tell me about that first moment when you thought of TeensGive?
I was doing my Bat Mitzvah project with a couple of my friends from Hebrew School, and a lot of them were doing an all-day cleanup project or fundraising for people that they’d never have any direct interaction with. They’d come home and say, “Phew! Glad that day is over.” And it really hurt my heart because I think community service is so important, but they just weren’t doing it the right way. And so it sort of clicked for me that I needed to create a way that they could do community service that fit in their schedules. So they could do it, enjoy it, and really see the impact they were making.

What was the initial “launch” of TeensGive?
The first thing we did was create a directory of service opportunities that I vetted from other service websites including Volunteer New YorkIdealist, and Volunteer Match. I singled out all the ones that were for students under the age of 18. There were very few, but I did my best and I put it up on my website. Unfortunately, not everyone’s schedule would match up and not many people showed up. So, I thought, what if there was a way to learn about these opportunities using the thing we use every day: our phones. And that’s when I thought of the virtual volunteering platform.

How has it evolved since that initial spark?
TeensGive.org now has a virtual volunteering platform which allows high school students to tutor students in low income and ESL communities over the computer. About two years later, I started Counting Cupcakes, a program for middle schoolers that taught the basics of business and math by creating a real, live bakery. At the end of the program, they would sell all the things they made, and the money would go to a charity of their choice

 

How do you recruit your teen volunteers?
My sister, Ellie, 16, is a huge help. We created an application for the volunteers. It’s kind of long, but if you fill it out it means that you’re committed. She gets about 10 applications a week — sometimes more — and she goes through all of them and decides which ones are most promising.

So how do you and Ellie balance this work with being a teenager and going to school?
It’s not easy! I’m on the golf team, which is my other thing. But when other people go to sports practices, I go to the local community center. I’ve always loved working with kids. I’d rather be doing that than my homework. But sometimes, yeah, the balance is hard.

What were some of the reactions you got from your first TeensGive event?
I love getting calls from moms thanking me — even though it’s not me, it’s the tutors. It’s really heartwarming, knowing that those tutors are so committed. It’s not that community service is lost on teenagers these days, it’s just that it wasn’t easily accessible. And I’m happy that I was the person who could make it more accessible.

What’s the hardest part about doing this work?
The hardest part is keeping up with everything. Making sure that I don’t miss an email from a student or a tutor. Keeping up with all the people who signed up and answering everyone’s questions. It’s not that it’s difficult, it’s just that it’s a lot to manage sometimes.

What’s next for the TeensGive campaign?
I hope to use the Diller Foundation’s award money to give mini-grants to students who want to start their own enrichment curriculum. They would have to send me a proposal and a budget. I hope to give out $200 grants to students who want to participate – that’s how I started. It really got me going and got me organized. I knew how much I had and what I had to do to work within that budget.

How about you? After high school, any plans?
Well, I’m currently a senior and  I’m applying to colleges. I definitely want to take TeensGive with me, wherever I wind up.  

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