Over 200 local teens from across Westchester County participated in a day of community service in honor of MLK Day in January. Thanks in part to a generous grant from UJA-Federation of New York in connection with the launch of its Time for Good volunteerism initiative, J-Teen Leadership spearheaded the Westchester-wide interfaith teen volunteer event to aid Syrian Refugees with the AFYA Foundation and Westchester County Youth Council. The teens’ work and the day, hosted by the the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, took on even greater significance in the weeks that followed after the new U.S. president signed an Executive Order banning entry to the United States of refugees and immigrants from seven Middle Eastern countries including Syria.
In opening remarks on the day of service, Pam Wexler from the UJA noted, “It’s hard to know how to help in this situation and hard to get direct help when they’re so far away. Today there are 35 service projects going on throughout Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Westchester. These times demand action.”
Danielle Butin, founder of AFYA, asked the students to think about what it would be like to be living the life of refugee, never going back home and what they would take. Butin shared that she had gone to Lesbos, Greece and saw refugees coming in, boat after boat, and asked them what they needed. One refugee answered, “We fled ISIS, we crossed the sea, no one in our family died, we need nothing.”
Butin emphasized to the volunteers, “Yours will be the last pair of hands to touch these supplies before they go to where they’re needed.” Butin also commented that participants “have to be a special kind of person to volunteer and not see the end point” of the goods and supplies going to those in need.
Teen volunteers spent the morning sorting and packing items delivered from collection sites around Westchester organized by teen collection ambassadors. Twelve pallets of donated goods included diapers, baby blankets and hats, combs, toothbrushes, toothpaste, bandages, Band-Aids, hand sanitizer, Bacitracin, Neosporin soap, feminine hygiene products, rain boots, office and school supplies.
The boxed supplies were scheduled to be air shipped to Syrian Refugees in Northern Iraq by the AFYA Foundation in partnership with the US Department of Defense. Community Service Certificates were provided for participating teens.
The J-Teen Leadership Planning Committee led by Co-Chairs Ethan Afran, Scarsdale High School junior, Jordyn Glantz, Horace Greeley High School senior, Aaron Hersch, Scarsdale High School senior and Hannah Malter, Byram Hills High School senior, ran the event. Together the four Co-Chairs realized the importance of taking initiative and didn’t want to just stand by and watch. In addition to sorting and packing supplies, the large group of teen volunteers made cards and wrote letters to the refugees.
Greeley senior Jordyn Glantz noted that while J-Teen holds an MLK Service Day every year this was the first time they were doing an event to help the Syrian Refugees. She was heartened by the large turn out of volunteers who were from all faiths throughout Westchester.
Byram Hills senior Hannah Malter emphasized that “advocating for those who don’t have a voice unites us all and makes our work that much more important.”
Carla Harding, a teen volunteer from the Westchester County Youth Council, noted in opening comments, “If MLK were here today, he’d be very, very happy to see the efforts you’re making.”
Dr. Georgette F. Bennett, from the Tanenbaum Center and Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, brought a spiritual aspect to the occasion quoting Leviticus 19:16, “Thou shalt not stand by idly while the blood of your brother cries out from the Earth” and added, “If we don’t help, we’re enabling the effect we fear the most and that is radicalizing. Public opinion is the only thing that’s going to change policy and that’s why it’s so important you young people are here especially because of your use of social media–get the message out, push back against anti-refugee rhetoric.”
This is the 11th year that teens from J-Teen Leadership turned out in force in an interfaith volunteer effort to encourage community building and connections across religious and societal lines in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Susie Stern, founder of Time for Good, encouraged the teen volunteers to “talk about this experience when you go home because you’re changing lives that have so little.”
For more info, visit www.ujafedny.org
Kelly Leonard is the founder and principal consultant of KLO Associates, LLC, a digital marketing boutique specializing in custom content strategy and influencer engagement for authors, publishers, local businesses and nonprofits. Previously she held senior management positions at Time Warner Book Group and Hachette Book Group.