For many Jewish children, the idea of charity often means dropping change into a bright-blue tzedakah box. Sure, the collected money goes to charitable organizations, but how do you measure whether the kids’ own efforts have any noticeable effect?
Now, one group of students is getting the opportunity to see its money at work.
During the last school year, seventh graders at Milwaukee Jewish Day School took on a challenge to help underprivileged children in Africa. Thirty-four students, with help from their teacher, Brian King, developed and worked on Voice of the Children, a charity they formed to help raise awareness of child-welfare problems and underprivileged Jewish communities abroad. By the end of May, Voice of the Children had raised enough money to construct a new school building in rural Kenya.
The project began after King attended a conference in November 2008 and heard a speech by Craig Kielburger, the co-founder of Free the Children, a youth organization that has built 500 schools around the globe for underprivileged kids. Because Kielburger began Free the Children when he was just 12, it made sense to King to start a charity with his own students. He came up with the idea of Voice of the Children.
“Listening to his story, I was like, hey, I’ve got seventh graders… I’ve got a world studies curriculum that focuses on Africa and Asia that really needs a jolt. Why can’t we do this, too?’” King said.
Two weeks after the conference, King introduced the idea to the administration at his school, including MJDS’s head of school, Judy Miller.
“I was delighted,” Miller said. “We know the children learn by doing, and this is really bringing [the school’s] mission to light.”
When King told his class, the students were immediately on board.
“It was amazing to me because I have heard of organizations like this, but it was different because it was a class project rather than one kid doing it,” said 14-year-old Sam Sinykin.
Before winter break, the students split into groups to brainstorm a mission statement and ways to raise money.
“[My statement] was saying how our goal was to really help other children like us, to understand their problems and to not take for granted everything we have,” seventh-grader Amy Lieberman said.
Her statement wasn’t too far from the final version, which concentrated on assisting underprivileged children in Africa, Asia and Jewish communities around the world, with the focus this year geared mostly toward Africa.
With the mission statement in place, the students began crafting a Web site while researching issues such as AIDS and malnutrition. Their findings resulted in fact sheets and PowerPoint presentations posted on the Web site, along with a blog, a news section and a page to make donations.
King spent the rest of the year weaving Voice of the Children in and out of the original class curriculum. Some days, students learned about such countries as Kenya; other days, they worked exclusively on the charity, and sometimes they did both.
As the school year went on, the charity began to gain momentum. The original plan for raising money was to sell used items the students owned, such as iPods, DVDs and textbooks. This worked well from the start.
But as word got around about the charity, online donations began pouring in from all over the country.
“People started sending us money, and we didn’t even know them. They weren’t even family,” said student Andrea Heffez, who sold an iPod to help raise funds for Voice of the Children.
The money the class made selling castoffs ended up being only about 35% of the total revnue raised.
Despite the economic recession, the class was able to blow past King’s original fundraising goal of $5,000.
By the end of the school year, Voice of the Children had raised about $7,000 in donations and from the sale. Adding to the organization’s success was a promise from a family at MJDS to double whatever money the students raised, bringing the grand total to $14,594.
In May, the students needed to select a charity to which they would donate the proceeds.
They looked for an existing, high-quality charity with an established track record of efficiency.
Once again, the class split into groups, this time to research charities dealing with children’s issues in Africa. They presented their findings to their families and to the entire middle school. The class voted for Kielburger’s Free the Children. King’s idea had come full circle.
The ultimate payoff for the students was that the money they donated to Free the Children was sufficient to create a new school building in Kenya. Construction will begin in the next few months.
“I am still kind of in shock that an entire school is going to be built from the money we raised,” Amy said.
The seventh graders at MJDS ultimately learned more than how to set up a charity and a Web site; they were able to connect with the Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam — repairing the world — and in the process, they were able to aid underprivileged children in Africa.
“We actually made it happen,” Sam said.
Contact Alex Suskind at email@example.com