Teens Pulling Their Weight on Big Sunday

Jewish Journal
April 20, 2010

Teens Pulling Their Weight on Big Sunday

You know how when you put on a new pair of socks, and they’re all soft and comfortable, you feel warm and pampered and sort of protected?

Most homeless people don’t know that feeling, and that’s something that bothered Sam Klebanow, a seventh-grader at Buckley School in Sherman Oaks.

So, for a social action project for his April 10 bar mitzvah, Sam decided to collect new socks for the homeless, and he thought the best way to gather and distribute the socks would be through Big Sunday, a citywide volunteer weekend that originated 12 years ago at Sam’s synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood.

More than 50,000 people are expected to volunteer to work at some 500 projects across Southern California the weekend of May 1-2. (A couple of years ago, Big Sunday became a weekend-long event but didn’t change its name.) Projects range from building houses for gibbons at a preserve in Santa Clarita to dozens of renovation and cleanup projects at schools and shelters. Volunteers will bathe basset hounds, sing for seniors, heal the bay (and the river, and the creek), cook for the needy, make quilts for wounded military personnel and take recovering addicts on a tour of the Museum of Tolerance.

Volunteers sign up through temples or churches or schools, and anyone can sign up individually at bigsunday.org.

Among the participants are many kids and teens, and a few, like Sam, are spearheading their own projects.

Sam was the first to sign up for Big Sunday’s new special collections initiative, which offers a how-to guide for collecting and distributing items people need.

“I really feel a sense of community, and it’s a great feeling,” Sam said. “It shows how much you can do, and it really shows that you can go far.”

Sam and his family will man a booth at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Sycamore Avenue (east of La Brea Avenue) on Big Sunday. He also has a collection bin at Temple Israel of Hollywood. He’s already collected about five boxes of socks and plans to buy more with some of his bar mitzvah gift money and hundreds of dollars that have been given him in donations. Target has indicated it will throw in some extras, according to Sam’s mom, Susan Weil.

Some teens will lead projects where they will be directing volunteers much older than they are. Nikki Isaacs, who will attend Brandeis University after she graduates Crossroads in Santa Monica this spring, will lead a team of around 20 volunteers for a landscaping project at the Ocean Park Community Center’s Cloverfield Service Center. The center houses shelters for mentally ill homeless people.

“I felt like I could do it, and I felt like I wanted to give back to this organization that is doing something really great and has had an impact on a lot of kids,” said Nikki, who is on Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s youth board.

Nikki has worked with Big Sunday for several years, refurbishing a middle school and a transitional housing center and helping run a fair for kids at a Head Start program. She is on Habitat for Humanity’s Los Angeles youth steering committee; for her Sweet 16, she invited a group of friends to paint and garden at a Habitat for Humanity site.

Raphi Heldman, a freshman at Hamilton High School’s humanities magnet, is using mostly teens as his volunteer force for a book drive he is spearheading.

While Big Sunday has collected thousands of books over the years and distributed them to school libraries in needy areas, Raphi wanted to see a more personalized distribution. So the team will sort and organize the books on Big Sunday, and on Tuesday Raphi and 30 other students from Hamilton will run a book fair for Para Los Ninos, which has a downtown afterschool program for 200 underprivileged kids.

Raphi, a member of Temple Isaiah, has never worked with Big Sunday before, but he understands the value of a good book: He just finished Stephen King’s “Cujo,” and is a big fan of “The Exorcist.” He also ran the L.A. Marathon in March.

Raphi is getting a big infusion of books from “How Many Stories Tall Is Your Teacher?” a Big Sunday book drive organized for elementary schools by two mothers who are also sisters, Jill Lefferman and Jenna Cooper. The idea is for students to bring in enough books to create a pile equal to the height of their teacher and encourages teachers to incorporate age-appropriate math and measurement lessons into the mitzvah component.

Lefferman hopes the privileged kids bringing the books will be able to relate to those on the receiving end more than they might at, say, a food drive.

“These kids can’t really appreciate how a can of beans is going to make a difference, because they’ve never wanted for food,” Lefferman said. “This is something they can appreciate because they know the joy of picking out a book in a store.”

And donating a favorite book in second grade might lead to bigger things when they reach ninth grade.

This is the first time Raphi is leading a major project, and he’s glad to have Big Sunday’s expertise in figuring out the complexities as he jumps in.

“I live a very privileged life, and a lot of people don’t,” Raphi said. “I figure the least I could do is help.”

(© Copyright 2010 Tribe Media Corp.)

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“To All at Big Sunday, Now, more than ever, we need the goodwill that you share and the good works that you do”

- — L.B., Los Angeles