Between school work, college planning, sports, “extracurriculars” and managing a social life – high school students are busy. Still, a group of 14 teenagers makes time for “L’Shaper” each Tuesday evening to put smiles on the faces of kids living at a shelter in Lynn. The Independence House, part of the Lynn Shelter Association (LSA), serves 32 families.
“I think it is very important for the teens to see how other people live and to understand how they ended up in a family shelter and what is shelter life,” said Independence House Case Manager Josette Patterson Frazier.
L’Shaper, which means “to improve” in Hebrew, is a core example of the North Shore Teen Initiative’s (NSTI) commitment to engage teens in meaningful and authentic service programming while working together with community partners. Launched in 2012, this program is a collaboration between NSTI, Temple Sinai and the Jewish Community Center of Marblehead. Before this year’s partnership with the Independence House, L’Shaper teens worked in school systems in Lynn and Revere, offering homework help and enrichment games to children whose parents were taking ESL classes at night.
Last year, LSA expressed a need for teen volunteers and NSTI stepped in to help. “NSTI members are wonderful role models for our young adults who provide a positive influence on children experiencing homelessness,” said former LSA Director of Development, Elaine Miller. “It is an excellent example of giving back, while learning more about social issues that create homelessness and the struggles of our families.”
NSTI welcomes teens grades nine through twelve from all over the North Shore. “Our tradition says the world stands on three things: Torah (Study), Avodah (Service) and Gemilut Hasadim (Acts of loving-kindness),” said Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai, who leads the students in short text study over pizza before they volunteer.
“It’s been a beautiful experience to sit with these young men and women and learn together before they head up to do their inspiring work with those in need. Those who participate in L’Shaper help the world continue standing and make it a better place for all of us,” Cohen-Henriquez added.
The teens go to the shelter each week, they laugh and play games like Apples to Apples, Headbands, Jenga and more, as if the children were their own younger brothers and sisters. As is so often the case with volunteer work, the L’Shaper teens say the program has changed their lives. For Halle Merkowitz, a sophomore at Minuteman Regional High School, the service work builds on her high school work, where she is studying early childhood education.
“I really enjoy playing with both the children at the shelter and my fellow peers,” Merkowitz said. “It’s a great experience overall. It really is a mitzvah.”
For others, like Korey Cohan, a junior at Marblehead High School, the Jewish component is key. “L’Shaper is very important to me. As a proud Jew, I value the importance of Torah, “Cohan said. “Judaism is a loving religion, which centers around helping those in need and spreading love and kindness, so it is my responsibility to do good deeds and help others. When I go and assist families in their time of need, I am fulfilling part of my duty, and showing God I am thankful for all that I have been given in my life.”
And shelter families appreciate what the teens bring. “It’s so good to see a smile on my son’s face, laughing and playing games on the floor with a couple of the teens each week,” said one shelter parent.
It’s hard for the teens to leave each week, as the kids beg them to play just one more game. The volunteers always leave with smiles on their faces and an excitement about returning the following week. This volunteer program is just one part of a larger network of service opportunities which NSTI facilitates in conjunction with community partners throughout the North Shore.
Editor’s Note: Sophie Katzman, who writes for the Journal, is a full-time employee of the North Shore Teen Initiative (nsteeninitiative.org).