Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Youths find joy in helping

Mitzvah Challenge group aids hungry teens

By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Amanda Cohen, 13, of Amberley Village, spent some time with Dearis Ferguson (left), 9, and other kids at the Seven Hills Neighborhood House in the West End Tuesday.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/STEVEN M. HERPPICH
WEST END - Twenty lucky Cincinnati teens know first-hand that the most important gift in life is the one you give away.

They learned this lesson by taking the Mitzvah Challenge. And passing with flying colors.

A symbolic graduation for the members of the Mitzvah Challenge, a youth-run project of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, took place Tuesday with the grand opening of a West End cafe.

The teens, 13- and 14-year-olds, attend various synagogues and high schools across town. They pooled the money they received as gifts from their coming-of-age rites - bar mitzvahs for the boys, bat mitzvahs for the girls - and gave it away to four local charities.

They gathered $7,700 and raised an additional $1,800 through fund-raising speeches.

With that cash in hand, they asked Greater Cincinnati nonprofits for grant requests. Nine charities responded.

The teens read the requests and debated their merits. Then they decided on doing good deeds for: the Interfaith Hospitality Network, funding transportation for the homeless; Friends of the Children, boosting the parenting skills of the mothers and fathers of at-risk children; and tutorial services for two bar and bat mitzvah students.

But the bulk of the money, $3,600, went to the FreeStore/FoodBank's Kids Cafe at Seven Hills Neighborhood House in the West End.

That amount funded six months of free hot meals at the cafe, whose grand opening took place Tuesday.

The Kids Cafe "had the most wonderful program of all the requests we received," said Amanda Cohen, an eighth-grader at Cincinnati Country Day. "They reminded us how lucky we are. And how many teens just like us are out there and are not as fortunate."

The Kids Cafe helps 50 needy teens every day. The West End location features food for the soul, mind and body - mentoring, a library and a kitchen serving dinner. That meal is the only hot food some of these teens will get each day.

That fact touched the hearts and the stomachs of the 20 Jewish teens. "All of us in the Mitzvah Challenge get three meals a day," said Jordan Baird, an eighth-grader at Cincinnati Country Day. "They are healthy, nutritious meals. There are kids in the area who are not going to get three meals; and if they do, they won't be healthy meals. No kid should have to go through that."

This vital need placed the Kids Cafe project high on the Mitzvah Challenge's list. "The kids decided to totally fund the Kids Cafe request," said Dianne M. Rosenberg, the Mitzvah Challenge's volunteer adult coordinator. "And how they did it was truly inspiring."

From their pool of gift money, the 20 teens had enough to donate $1,800, half of the Kids Cafe's request. The other $1,800 came from fund-raising speeches the teens gave to congregations and charitable foundations.

"We told them why we were doing this," said Rachael Dollin, an eighth-grader at Indian Hill Middle School, "and how we felt about giving away this money."

"I could have gone shopping, gotten stuff for myself," Baird said. "But as many clothes as I could have gotten, nothing would have made me feel as happy."

Now, the MC teens want to take their commitment to the next level. Giving their money is one thing. Giving their time is an even greater investment. "We need to meet at the Kids Cafe at least once a month and serve dinner," said Guttman.


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