Known in Jewish circles for Amy’s Holiday Party, an annual celebration benefiting underserved children in Atlanta, Amy Zeide is also responsible for introducing Jewish teens to tikkun olam.
Zeide’s nonprofit organization, Creating Connected Communities, hosts eight events and festivals throughout the year. CCC partners with 60 local organizations and schools to serve refugees, children in foster homes and children experiencing homelessness. More than 700 volunteer opportunities, most filled by teens, are available each year.
“So many organizations have age restrictions for direct outreach work, like hospitals. We start in seventh grade with the mitzvah program. Kids come to serve directly and create a connection,” Zeide said.
The entry point for volunteering is the Mitzvah Sponsor program. B’nai mitzvah students contact Zeide to brainstorm ideas for their projects up to 12 months before the service. The student, parents and Zeide set up a call to discuss the details.
Busy parents appreciate that most of the organizing is via calls and email rather than in-person meetings.
“The focus is teen empowerment. We want the project to feel meaningful. Whatever the student’s passion or interest, we can plan a mutually beneficial event, whether it’s a collection, a fundraiser or running a program,” said Zeide, who launched Amy’s Holiday Party as her own bat mitzvah project. “Mitzvah project ideas and opportunities are variable. It’s all about creating a project that benefits (CCC) and is meaningful to the teen.”
Zeide recalled one mitzvah sponsor with a passion for sports. He created field day activities for an event. His idea included five stations of drills, games and activities. Zeide helped the student create a supply list for sports equipment, a timeline in which to secure donations, and a letter soliciting friends and family to donate equipment or cash.
The student set up the stations and ran the activities with other volunteers. He did it all from concept to implementation, she said.
Some mitzvah sponsors are not as outgoing, and that is OK by Zeide’s standards. While one student loves to prep, plan and execute a large-scale project, another is happy collecting and handing out gifts at Amy’s Holiday Party.
Zeide stressed that if the project is not meaningful, the student is less likely to return as a volunteer. “The whole point is to embark on the next stage, and that means philanthropic efforts as Jewish adults.”
Former participant Sydney Cohen said the program “opened my eyes to disparities and challenges I hadn’t been exposed to before, which fueled my interest in public service and led me to a degree in public health.”
After the Mitzvah Sponsor program, students can follow two paths: attending the Leadership Training Program or volunteering at CCC events.
The one-year leadership program is time-intensive for 65 chosen students. An application is required and reviewed by the LTP Teen Board. Meeting in Sandy Springs, students learn about what it means to be nonprofit members as well as community leaders.
Zeide said the teen leaders gain skills in project management, fundraising, volunteer recruitment, public speaking and needs assessment.
Teens learn about the needs of different populations and think outside their own interests.
“Just because we think something is fun doesn’t mean the community can benefit. For example, you love baseball and want to hand out balls and bats. But we are not allowed to hand out bats. And there is nowhere to play that sport in some communities,” Zeide said.
The goal is for teens to leave with a sense of making an impact, with skills that an organization can use, and with a desire to be an engaged community leader, whether through Hillel or another college campus group.
“As a high-schooler still unsure of my career path, LTP opened up many doors; the program taught me to be a leader among my peers, gave me a glimpse into the behind the scenes of nonprofit operations and really made me feel like I had agency in something much greater than myself,” Leadership Training Program graduate Stefanie Pous said. “It gave me something to be passionate about and then gave me the resources to bring my passion to action. The skills and connections I built in LTP have, without a doubt, shaped me in terms of both my volunteerism and professionalism.”
Zeide said the program is all about creating leaders for the Jewish community. “Whether you directly serve other Jewish people or, like JF&CS, benefit the larger community, you have something to offer. You do not have to have money or be a certain age. You need awareness, compassion and the motivation to make a difference.”
Becoming a Leader
Teens in Creating Connected Communities’ Leadership Training Program have gone on to participate in community service clubs, fraternities and sororities. Several have been awarded scholarship money based on their experiences.
Two graduates of LTP now run sessions as mentors for CCC. After graduation, they secured jobs in Atlanta and returned to CCC.
For more on becoming a mitzvah sponsor or applying for leadership training, contact Amy Zeide at firstname.lastname@example.org.