Their body language told the story: They were exhausted. When the 208 teens involved in the second annual Come ALIVE in the Community day of service returned to the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains on Sunday afternoon, April 25, they all flopped on the bleachers and the floor, barely talking, not even much interested in the snacks awaiting them.
Asked how the day had been, the answers were brief: “Okay;” “Worthwhile;” “I’ll do it again next year.” About the longest was, “We were with our friends, so it was fun.”
Their achievements said more for them. The “ALIVE” part stands for “alliance, leadership, involvement, volunteerism, and energy,” and the teens had shown all of that. Since the launch of the event at 10:30 that morning they had — among other things — fed the hungry, cleaned up property, prepared garden beds, sorted and shelved books, performed for the elderly, and made gifts to send to hospital patients.
The program — including the publicity, outreach, and colorful T-shirts — was organized by 10th-graders from the JCC’s youth group and the I Have a Dream program from South Plainfield. They drew in other friends, and on Sunday joined forces with a big contingent from BBYO, the youth group affiliated with B’nai B’rith. The BBYO-ers were at the JCC for the weekend-long Spring Convention of their Greater Jersey Hudson River Region. For them, the Sunday effort was part of J-Serve, the National Day of Jewish Youth Service.
As the teens lounged about recovering from their toils, they were shown a slide show of their activities. It had been put together, within the hour, by volunteer Rachel Toporek, who gathered photos taken at the venues and added music. You could tell how tired the kids were: Even when they saw their own teams on the screen, their cheers were muted.
Larry Johnson is director of the Plainfield Dreamers program, which is sponsored by Temple Emanu-El in Westfield. He was really proud of the outcome. “All together, doing about four hours of work each, they put in four times more service hours than last year,” he said. That was thanks to the huge increase in the participants; last year there were 98.
Mallory Saks, the JCC’s director of youth and teen services, was probably more exhausted than the teens, but she was beaming. This is the second year she worked with a joint committee of JCC and Dreamer teens to organize the day of action, and she declared herself well pleased with the outcome. “It went really well,” she said.
‘No differences at all’
Aside from the social service, one of the event’s main goals is to have the young people from the two communities get to know one another. While they gravitated back to their friends at the end of the day, they had worked together in integrated teams. Janet Kurtter, a volunteer from Emanu-El who has worked for years with the Dreamers, said, “It’s really seamless. These kids get together as if there were no differences between them at all.”
Maddie Rosenberg was with three of her friends, all fellow sophomores at Westfield High School. She is a member of the JCC group but none of the others are. Asked why they chose to spend their Sunday working instead of relaxing, her friends grinned and shrugged. “Because Maddie asked us to,” said Dara Levy. Three of them painted signs and prepared plantings for the United Way Community Gardens. Another helped clean trails in the Watchung Reservation.
Niga Jacques, a 10th-grader in the Dreamer program, worked alongside some of the Jewish teens and with her fellow Dreamer, Dawan Rose, at the Queen City School library. He said he would have preferred a more challenging task, but Niga said it still felt good to be helpful.
Some participants rehearsed and then performed a talent show for seniors at Brighton Gardens in Mountainside; others baked cookies for Meals-on-Wheels of Westfield.
At the HomeFirst offices in Plainfield, teens cleared garbage, prepared flower beds, and built bird cages. Even their adult supervisors agreed it had been heavy labor. But perhaps the most challenging work was at the Salvation Army soup kitchen in Plainfield. There, the teens helped prepare and serve lunches to needy families.