2 Jewish teens harness the power of their peers to address social problems - and spark a movement
September 22, 2023
In mid-2021, as the COVID pandemic raged, high school student Lily Messing noticed that the social ills plaguing her native Tucson, Arizona - including domestic violence, drug abuse and homelessness - all seemed to be getting worse.
Meanwhile, Jake Hammerman, a teenager in Lafayette, California, a suburb in the San Francisco Bay area, saw firsthand how the pandemic exacerbated the challenges facing homebound seniors, many of whom were isolated to begin with.
Determined to do something to help, the two Jewish teens put their respective skills to use: Lily as a grassroots organizer, Jake as a tennis instructor.
Lily, 17, established 100+ Teens Who Care, a nonprofit network of "giving circles" comprised of like-minded high school students who collectively select and donate to a specific local charity. Her first chapter, in Tucson, started out with 100 members and now boasts at least 220 teens. While Lily's project began in Arizona, her impact has expanded across the United States and internationally, with 23 chapters now operating in places ranging from Idaho to Islamabad, Pakistan.
"I began the organization because I felt like teens really wanted to make a difference but lacked the coordination and opportunity to do so," Lily said. "I wanted to give them an outlet to make meaningful change in our community."
Jake, 18, launched Impactful Tennis in May 2020 to fund a local Meals on Wheels chapter. Under the program, volunteers offered children tennis lessons and asked that in lieu of payment parents donate the fees to that charity. Since its founding, Impactful Tennis volunteers have given over 900 tennis lessons to some 400 students, generating $39,000 in donations - not only meals for the elderly, but also for companionship and mental health services.
"My project started from my passion for tennis and also from what I was seeing on the news," Jake said. "My grandparents suffer from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The pandemic definitely aggravated the impact of these diseases, so I really wanted to help seniors during this time of need."
In early August, the two extraordinary Jewish teens - along with 13 others from across the United States - were honored at a ceremony in San Francisco by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which awarded each of the 15 teens a $36,000 prize in recognition of their outstanding work innovating and leading change in their communities and around the world.
The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, whose name is Hebrew for "repairing the world," are given annually.
Among this year's awardees: New Jersey resident Aron Goodman, who uses TikTok to fight antisemitism by sharing first-person video interviews with his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor; Meaza Light-Orr of Los Angeles, who spearheaded a $120,000 project to fund a primary school in her birth village of Kololo, Ethiopia; and Steven Hoffen, whose nonprofit boosts food security by installing and maintaining hydroponic gardens both in Israel and his native New York City.
Since its inception in 2007, the foundation's Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards - established by Bay Area philanthropist Helen Diller - have given away nearly $7 million to 189 recipients. The awardees use the funds to help further their projects or contribute toward their education.
"Young people are striving to solve critical challenges in their communities with creativity, hard work, resourcefulness, and a commitment to tikkun olam," said Phyllis Cook, the foundation's philanthropic consultant. "We are inspired by their leadership and committed to recognizing them as role models for other teens by celebrating how young people can make an impact in communities across the country."
For Jake, who has been playing tennis since age 7, it seemed obvious that the best way to raise funds for Meals on Wheels was to give local children tennis lessons. But instead of collecting money, he'd ask the kids' parents to donate to Impactful Tennis through a GoFundMe account.
"It started off with just me and five of my closest friends, but I knew the organization had the potential to grow much bigger," said Jake, a rising freshman who will attend Yale this fall. The group, which only gives lessons during the summer, now has 20 volunteer instructors and charges $40 per lesson. The concept is so popular that its online sign-up sheets generally fill up within minutes.
Even though COVID largely has receded from public concern, social isolation among the elderly still persists on a massive scale, Jake noted.
For her part, Lily realized that an individual teen donating $25 might feel insignificant, but that such a donation when combined with 100 other contributions could make a real difference.
As part of 100+ Teens Who Care, each member donates $100 per year ($25 at every quarterly meeting), with 100 percent of the collected funds going to a selected charity. At each meeting, three vetted local charities are randomly selected for consideration. Following brief presentations by those who nominated them, members vote anonymously. The charity with the most votes receives all the funds.
Since its inception, the Tucson chapter of 100+ Teens Who Care has raised more than $30,000 to provide essential supplies to homeless youth, support mental health services for children and fund housing for those transitioning out of the foster care system. Together, the impact of her service-minded peers is far stronger than if each teen helped individually, Lily said.
"I realized I could use the Tucson chapter as a template to create other chapters, so I developed information videos to help other teens start their own chapters," Lily said. "We're expanding at the rate of two new chapters every month, and every chapter puts its own spin on it."
So, for example, the 100+ Teens Who Care chapter in Palm Beach, Florida, does monthly beach cleanups, while the chapter in Portland, Oregon, hosts food drives for that city's homeless population.
"I feel like there's real power in getting a group of like-minded teens to come together to make the world a better place and instill the values of philanthropy at such a young age," Lily said. "I truly hope this will carry with them for the rest of their lives."
This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, which celebrate tikkun olam, or "repairing the world." Each year, the Helen Diller Family Foundation recognizes up to 15 extraordinary Jewish teenagers from across the United States with an award of $36,000 each to honor their initiatives to help change the world. Nominate a young leader today or teens can apply directly by Jan. 5, 2024. This story was produced by JTA's native content team.