There is a lot to celebrate after a week of community service in Houston with the sixth cohort of the Wexner Service Corps. We had an incredible group and an amazing experience together! All in all, we served Houston by contributing over 1300 service hours as a group, including 28 hours each of service work and 10 hours each of Jewish learning and reflection. Read on to see a brief snapshot of our week, followed by reflections from some of our outstanding teens.

Service sites:

  • Undies for Everyone: We spent time in a distribution center packing underwear for children in need. Undies for Everyone, founded by Rabbi Amy Weiss, works to provide disadvantaged youth with clean underwear. In the week immediately following Hurricane Harvey, they collected and distributed 177,882 pairs of underwear to emergency shelters and schools to help storm victims.
  • SBP: We worked for 2.5 days to help rebuild three different homes in Northeast Houston. SBP focuses on disaster resilience and recovery in cities that have been devastated by natural disasters. The teens learned how to put up insulation and drywall, lay tile, cut window trim and paint doors, as well as many other important skills.
  • Houston Food Bank: We spent a full day at the Houston Food Bank, splitting our time between their food distribution center and cooking in the kitchen for an after school program. As a group, we helped provide nearly 30,000 meals for people in need! Houston Food Bank is one of the largest food banks in the country, typically distributing 250,000 pounds of food daily. After Hurricane Harvey, they increased distribution to 1,000,000 pounds per day, which provides 615,000 meals!

 
Additional trip highlights:

  • Presentation from David Mackintosh of the US Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District to learn about flooding during Hurricane Harvey and the impact the reservoirs and dams had on the flooding, followed by a visit to the Addicks Reservoir and the new dam under construction.
  • Nightly Jewish learning sessions and discussions to reflect on the meaning of the service work through the lens of a Jewish framework.
  • A visit to the Houston JCC for a dip in the pool to escape the heat, followed by dinner and meeting with local Jewish leaders who recounted their personal stories from Hurricane Harvey and the role the Jewish communal institutions played in rescue and recovery.
  • Presentation from Steve Costello, Chief Resiliency Officer for the city of Houston (aka the “Flood Czar”) about the various projects currently in the works to help Houston prepare for future flooding and storms.
  • Night out at Minute Maid Field to watch the Houston Astros take on the Seattle Mariners, followed by a mini street concert and an awesome karaoke party on the bus ride home.
  • Daily group bonding using many different opportunities to learn more about each other, including bus “speed dating”, ice breakers, games and plenty of hanging out. 
  • End of the week celebratory dinner at a local kosher restaurant, followed by a surprise ice skating party.
 

 

Jessie Goldberg
During the WSC trip, I made new friends and became an active member in my Jewish community. I particularly enjoyed the way this trip made me feel more connected to the Jewish community as a whole and to the Jewish teens within my community. Before the trip I could count on one hand the number of Jewish kids I knew in Columbus, but after just one week together, I know more Jewish teens than I can count. The group was very nice and ready to help with anything. When anyone asked for volunteers no one hesitated to raise their hand. Everyone seemed willing to go above and beyond because we all believe very strongly in this cause and were willing to do whatever it took to make a difference. An experience that stands out to me was when we were rebuilding one of the houses. My group was struggling to lift a heavy piece of drywall. When the other WSC participants noticed us having difficulty, there was no hesitation and they immediately came over to help us. My favorite part of the trip was our evening at the Houston JCC pool because we got closer as a group and it was really fun. But I think what made this the best part was that prior to visiting the pool, we had spent a whole day working hard in the Houston heat installing insulation and drywall at a house damaged by Hurricane Harvey. Because we spent the whole day working, it made the pool seem like a bigger reward for our hard work. 

The staff led discussion sessions to help us understand our experiences within a Jewish context. During these sessions, we spoke a lot about privilege and how people can experience both privilege and challenges at the same time. We challenged each other to view everyone around us as if they were our family members and created in the image of God. If we did that sincerely, we would treat everybody a little kinder and make the world a better place by seeing the good in everyone. I learned that it’s important that you feel good after doing community service, but it should never be the priority. The priority should be who you’re helping and if the cause you’re helping is something that you believe in. Participating in Wexner Service Corps helped introduce me to Jewish values that I didn’t know about and, most importantly, it helped me step outside my comfort zone and learn how to do things that I never thought I could do.
— Jessie Goldberg is a rising junior at Upper Arlington High School and a member of Congregation Tifereth Israel. 

 

    
 

Daniel Griffaton  
The WSC Houston trip was a great experience for me. The service we did was supplemented by learning about why we do service in our discussion sessions. My favorite part of the trip was the construction work we did on houses damaged by Hurricane Harvey. Seeing the progress we made was very rewarding and knowing that we were helping people regain one of their most precious possessions made the experience even better. We read a powerful Jewish text, which states, “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Even though we only contributed to a fraction of the work needed to get these families back into their homes, I learned that each person can make a small difference, even if there is always more to be done. Through our discussion sessions, I learned more about the Jewish obligation to serve and give back, including historical, moral and biblical reasons, and how that manifested itself during the fight for civil rights and other movements. We also discussed some of the difficulties and challenges Jews have faced while trying to form coalitions with others in social justice work. 
— Daniel Griffaton is a rising senior at Pickerington North High School and a member of Temple Beth Shalom. Daniel is part of the Senior Leadership Cohort in his second year with the Wexner Service Corps.

Blair Glimcher  
My overall experience in Houston was amazing. I made friends with Jewish kids I had never met, learned about Judaism and its connection to service and helped the Houston community recover from Hurricane Harvey. Hearing victims’ stories and their support and love toward us as a group was truly a driving factor for the service we did. None of it felt like work because we knew how much we were helping the community. My favorite aspect of the trip was connecting with other Jewish kids, especially through our discussion sessions. It was amazing to be in a comfortable environment where we could share our opinions freely and learn more about Judaism. The staff members listened intently to each of us share our ideas and they helped facilitate incredible discussions. Through these sessions I learned how Judaism and service are connected, which affected my entire trip experience because during service I could think about how doing this was part of my role as a Jew. I also loved making connections with the other teens, whether on the bus, working alongside them at the service sites or late-night ice skating together. I met so many new people who became my close friends and reconnected with people from my Hebrew school. I have a different appreciation for the Jewish community now because I know there are way more Jewish teens just like me all over Columbus. One of my takeaways from the trip is that the community of service is way bigger than I thought. After the hurricane, so many people found ways to volunteer and give back, even if they themselves were victims of flooding and damage. I learned about the Tzedakah wheel where you always must give and give even when you don’t have, because you never know when you’ll be on the other side and in need.  
— Blair Glimcher is a rising junior at Columbus School for Girls and a member of Congregation Tifereth Israel.

   

Emily Spector  
The WSC trip to Houston was an eye-opening experience, and the week had a truly positive impact on my life by enabling me to dedicate myself to the meaningful service of others, connect to and understand residents of Houston and further develop my Jewish identity by connecting with the Jewish community and understanding the Jewish meaning behind the work we did. My favorite aspect of the trip was the amazing opportunity to work together with the Houston community to make a difference. I loved working at the construction sites, connecting with the site leaders and pushing myself out of my comfort zone to learn new skills. It was so meaningful to advance the process of bringing an individual back to her home and work on something as emotionally meaningful and precious as a home. 

The WSC trip created such a unique environment for connecting with
other Jewish teens by learning and doing meaningful work together, along
with having lots of fun! I feel so much more connected to the Jewish
community of Columbus and I now feel I have a support system of Jewish
teens. The trip brought out the best in everyone by directing our focus
to caring for others, self-improvement and making a difference.
Everyone was compassionate, accepting of others and worked hard to
create a positive and cooperative team environment. 

Every staff member had such a positive influence on the group and was vital to creating a supportive and open environment. I appreciated their personal interest in getting to know every participant, encouraging us and pushing us to gain a deeper understanding of our service work. The staff members made every member feel important and empowered to make a difference. 

I learned that community service should be done “with people” and not “for people,” meaning that to truly make a positive impact through service we must actively listen and learn from others to meet their needs and accept the responsibility of helping wherever we can, regardless of how “fun” we think the work is. I learned it is essential to devote 100% of efforts towards all service endeavors, step up to serve even when it is not the most popular thing to do and use a positive attitude to inspire and encourage others. The Jewish learning and discussions affected my service experiences by providing time to reflect and deepen my understanding of the meaning behind the work we were doing and how to better approach the work. I learned about the Jewish responsibility to serve others, the importance of supporting one’s community and the central importance of treating every individual as a loved one, which has continued to impact my life and the way I think about and interact with the world around me.

I would encourage all teens to apply to WSC for an amazing experience to grow one’s self and be empowered to make a difference, as well as a way to meet new people and become more connected with the Jewish community. I would advise these teens to have an open mind and a positive attitude, and with this they will surprise themselves with how much they can grow and make a positive impact!  
— Emily Spector is a rising junior at New Albany High School and a member of Temple Beth Shalom.

   

Lydia Colvin
The WSC trip to Houston was one of the best experiences that I have ever had. It allowed me to connect to Jewish values while giving me the opportunity to put my value of community service into action. We heard from many people, both in the Jewish community and from outside the Jewish community, and it showed me how one catastrophic event can affect so many lives in so many different ways. My favorite aspect of the WSC trip was the group discussion every night. I thought that the activities during the discussions, including the tower building and privilege walk, added value to the discussions. The activities pushed us to think deeper and consider new approaches to social justice issues. The educators guided the discussions and pushed each person to go beneath the surface while formulating their own opinions. Even when they challenged participants’ ideas, it was to further the conversation and make people think about their opinion or consider another perspective. Each discussion helped me bring a new perspective to the volunteer work that I was doing the next day, which allowed for the service work to have even more meaning for me. 

Additionally, the trip connected me with other Jewish teens from Columbus who also share a passion for community service. There aren’t a lot of Jewish teens in my school or where I live. It was a great experience to meet people in the Jewish community that I wouldn’t have otherwise met. Being in a group of all Jewish teens showed me that I have a Jewish community around me even if it isn’t always obvious. I was worried because I went into this trip being somewhat shy around new people. Thankfully, it was easy to meet new people because everybody was connected through our commitment to Judaism and community service. I thought it was amazing that we talked about what we were passionate about and steps to take to help those organizations we are passionate about. I often feel like I want to fix everything in the world, but this trip showed me that there are so many ways to help others and that little things go a long way. Even if I can’t finish the job, I must still find a way to help and contribute to the process.  
— Lydia Colvin is a rising junior at Olentangy Liberty High School and a member of Congregation Beth Tikvah.

    



Ellie Levy
I had an amazing experience on the WSC trip to Houston. I learned new things about myself and gained a better understanding of where I come from by having sessions at night discussing the Jewish community, privilege, why each one of us decided to join WSC and what motivates us to give back. It helped me see how fortunate I am to be able to give back to people that need it. My favorite part of the trip was getting to know the 40 other Jewish kids in my community that I didn’t know very well before. Working with them for hours each day and getting to discuss issues in the community helps us get an idea of how others see the community and how we all can help. I learned that helping others is very rewarding and, although it can be hard work, it’s easy to make it fun when friends are around you. Knowing I have access to this incredible peer group helps me see that there are other Jewish teens near me that I can rely on for help, support and advice in the future. Additionally, the sessions and conversations with the staff really made me think about new perspectives and gave me a chance to voice my opinions in a safe space without feeling judged. I thought a lot about how fortunate I am and the resources and opportunities I have access to in my life. I am motivated to find ways to use these resources for good and to help others. After this trip, I feel like a better person and I’m able to see that I can help by giving back even in just a few days of work. 
— Ellie Levy is a rising junior at Bexley High School and a member of Congregation Agudas Achim.

   

  
Sami Handmaker  
The WSC trip to Houston was definitely one of the most exciting trips I have ever been on. I got the chance to work with other Jewish teens from around Columbus, most of whom I had never met before, to help the Houston community through various service projects. I never realized how many different types of community service existed. Even something as simple as distributing clean underwear to children in need through Undies for Everyone can have a direct impact on school attendance and feelings of dignity and self-esteem. Every night, after a long day of hard work at our service sites, the trip educators connected our service to Jewish lessons and activities, where we discussed Judaism in new ways, made connections to contemporary issues in the world today and learned about how we treat each other. I really enjoyed the discussions because they were unique and applicable to our lives. From the privilege walk to tower building and everything in between, I learned many ways to bring Judaism into my life. 

My favorite aspect of the trip was each of the unique service projects we helped complete. For the most part, we were directly involved inthe outcome and we could see the impact of our hard work. Being from a community that has not experienced such disaster in recent years, it was an eye-opening experience that educated us about the struggles different areas around the nation face. Obviously, we had previously heard about the devastating effects of Harvey, but there was nothing more powerful than being there in person and experiencing everything first-hand. I know that even though the work we did was a small portion of what needs to be done, our work will still impact the lives of many people in the Houston community. 

I learned that there are so many large and small ways to help and service is not always direct physical labor. During the trip, I had the opportunity to not only talk with, but also work on projects with many people I had never talked to before. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, which made the trip enjoyable and fun. I found the staff to be really helpful and encouraging during the long, tiring week. They always found a way to ensure everyone was enjoying themselves and encouraged us to work harder, even during the incredibly hot Texas afternoons. I am proud of the group as a whole for everything we accomplished and for our shared commitment to Judaism and community service. If we all take our great ideas and hard work back to Columbus, we can definitely make a real impact on our own community.  
— Sami Handmaker is a rising junior at New Albany High School and a member of Temple Beth Shalom.