The Jewish Fund Teen Board

by Vivian Henoch

Imagine creating a whole new take on giving back to the community. Suppose someone gave you $50,000 and said, “Take this money and use it to make our community a better place.” What would YOU do?

Last October, 29 high school students from the Jewish community set out to do just that . . . to make our community a better place by learning the ropes of philanthropy and grantmaking through service to the inaugural Teen Board of The Jewish Fund.

Given $50,000 as a special allocation from the Jewish Fund, the group has worked for the past eight months to research and identify those areas where the funding would make the most impact to create a positive change for the youth of Detroit.

“The Teen Board of The Jewish Fund began with a very ambitious goal…to help mold our next generation of philanthropists,” says Teen Board Coordinator Martha Goldberg. “We sought a diverse group of Jewish teens with the vision of creating a forum where they could share their experience and develop and practice their leadership skills . . . and each in their own way has brought something special to the table. What’s been most gratifying is to see how the program has helped build a strong cohort of teens, passionate about our Jewish community and the future of Detroit and determined to improve the circumstances of some of the most vulnerable children and youth of our city.”

Teen Board
“The program has helped build a strong cohort of teens, passionate about our Jewish community and the future of Detroit.” — Martha Goldberg

A pilot program with the goal to model youth philanthropy, The Jewish Fund Teen Board is part of a nationwide initiative to nourish the trend of teen philanthropy. In 2014, Metropolitan Detroit was one of two communities selected by the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN) to take part in the first cohort of the Teen Foundation Board incubator, generously funded by Laura Lauder and the Maimonides Fund. This initiative seeks to create as many as ten new high-quality Jewish teen foundations by 2016. The Jewish Fund Teen Board will continue to receive the support of the JTFN in the form of resources and consultations throughout the next four years of programming.

What would you do?

The Teen Board is conceived as a youth-led program, empowering teens to work side-by-side with The Jewish Fund staff as respected colleagues fully aligned with the organization’s legacy of Sinai Hospital and its mission to support community programs and services that help at-risk individuals improve their health and family condition.

Membership on the board represented a significant commitment of time and responsibility, whereby the teens were required to meet monthly throughout the academic year. In the course of their term on the board, they researched and identified organizations with programs that addressed issues of critical concern in the areas of:

  •  Early childhood health and kindergarten readiness
  •  Effective family communication to decrease substance abuse among youth
Teen Board
As the teen board learned, the needs of the community are always far greater than the resources.

As the Teen Board learned – and all foundations experience – the needs of the community are always far greater than the resources. Choosing the programs to fund – cutting the pie among many worthy organizations – is always a difficult task. After months of research, an intensive round of site visits and interviews, considerable debate – and a degree of personal soul-searching – the Teen Board selected four programs for grants, all of which were heartily approved by the board of The Jewish Fund on May 5, 2015:

$17,500 to the Ruth Ellis Center, Inc. in Highland Park, MI, for the Family Preservation and Acceptance Project to increase family acceptance and to address or prevent substance abuse issues and homelessness of youth identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ). It is estimated that there are between 800 and 1,000 homeless and runaway LGBTQ youth in Metro Detroit. The Ruth Ellis Center served at least half of these teens last year. Beginning in the fall 2015, youth will be able to access a fully-integrated health program, addressing outpatient substance abuse, mental health and primary healthcare onsite at the Center.

With the grant from The Jewish Fund Teen Board, the Ruth Ellis Center additionally will support LGBTQ youth holistically within their families with the goal to reduce the high percentage of LGBTQ young people who experience rejection at home and turn to substance abuse. The Teen Board felt that a program directly targeting this issue was a powerful expression of their funding priorities.

$12,500 to The Guidance Center in Southgate, MI, for Get Up and Go! – a project to support toddlers and preschoolers from disadvantaged homes so they can be successful in kindergarten. The Guidance Center serves a large population of children ages 0-6, many of whom currently have no books or toys in their home and are unable to work on the skills needed for kindergarten outside of the Early Head Start/Head Start environment.

With the grant from The Jewish Fund Teen Board, the Guidance Center will create educational kits, which can be kept by families at home, with learning activities focused on literacy and other age-appropriate skills to support families in maintaining a positive home environment in which to prepare their children for kindergarten. Additionally, the program would target children with autism and other developmental disabilities, many of whom need items at home to work on fine motor and sensory challenges.

Teen Board
“We couldn’t have asked for a brighter, more thoughtful, more committed group of young people to take the lead in the first year of this program.” — Karen Sosnick Schoenberg, Board Chair of The Jewish Fund

$10,500 to JARC in Farmington Hills, MI, for the Link Up Empowerment Program to nurture independence and deter substance abuse among teens and young adults with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities (I/DD). Recognizing that young people with I/DD are not immune to the dangers of substance abuse, isolation and anxiety about sex and relationships, JARC has proposed a program to match young adults with I/DD with an experience life coach to foster open communication regarding these issues.

With the grant from the Teen Board, JARC will educate participants on risk-taking behaviors and encourage healthy ways to connect with peers. Additionally, JARC will further educate and encourage open dialogue with the greater community. The overall program directly addresses the Teen Board’s goal to increase effective family communication to decrease substance abuse among youth.

$9,500 to Starfish Family Services in Inkster, MI, for the Inkster Family Literacy Movement to enhance the literacy skills of both children and their parents/caregivers in metro Detroit families. Offering regular opportunities for families to gather and experience books and read together, the Inkster program will provide examples and role-modeling activities that can be reinforced in the home.

Overall, 34% of Inkster adults are considered functionally illiterate. Starfish seeks to eradicate these statistics. Given the potential to impact a very large number of children and families to create positive change within the entire Inkster community, the Teen Board supported the request for the grant.

Gateway to leadership

“We are a community that encourages and fosters leadership in our young people, and this program has given them the tools to build upon their experiences,” stated Karen Sosnick Schoenberg, Board Chair of The Jewish Fund. “We couldn’t have asked for a brighter, more thoughtful, more committed group of young people to take the lead in the first year of this program. The fact that nine of the 29 teens have chosen to apply for next year’s board speaks to their commitment to tikkun olam and to the future of our city.”

The Jewish Fund Teen Board
Scott Kaufman, CEO of the Jewish Federation, stops by during a Teen Board strategy session.

And what do the young grantmakers have to say about the overall experience of serving on The Jewish Fund Teen Board? In a few well-chosen words:

“Engaging, accepting and amazing” – Avi Greenbaum

“I feel successful because I know that we have made a difference for the programs and organizations.” – Lucie Rosenthal

“I have been able to extend what I do for our community. I am proud to be on such a new and successful board; like a pioneer.” – Cooper Bellinson

“I feel a revitalized interest in the city of Detroit.” – Brian Colton

“Enlightening, eye-opening” – Kendall Coden

“I have gained a set of skills and values that will guide me not only in my future grantmaking endeavors, but in all facets of my life.” –Connor Tukel

“By participating in this amazing philanthropy program I have learned so much. I really feel like we have helped the community in a good way.” –Carolyn Cohn

“Doing good . . . behind the scenes” – Emily Stillman

“A new view on the Jewish community” – Jack Israel