Fred Scarf had to make sure he was wearing his glasses when he saw the number attached to the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award: $36,000. That’s a lot of money to most people, but especially to a high school senior.
Scarf won the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award last spring in recognition of his work in founding the Shiri Foundation, a cancer research and support organization named for his best friend, Shiri Gumbiner, who died of osteosarcoma when she was 16.
The Diller Tikkun Olam Award is presented annually to five 13- to 19-year-old Californians who have exhibited passion and leadership in tikkun olam, improving the world.
The fact that the purse is so substantial reflects just how esteemed teens are in the mind of Helen Diller, whose family foundation funds the awards.
“They are our future. These teens are so brilliant, and they have something strong within themselves to show this leadership and this ability to do good in the world,” Diller said in a phone interview from her Bay Area home.
In 2008, the awards recognized teens who helped children in underdeveloped countries, worked to save polar bears and exposed difficult truths about teen dating violence. Last year, the inaugural year of the awards, teens were awarded for creating a high school Holocaust curriculum, salvaging old furniture for Jewish thrift shops and raising money and awareness to combat the ongoing genocide in Sudan.
Winners can put the prize money toward their college education, or use it to further their tikkun olam efforts.
Diller’s commitment to supporting teen activism began 11 years ago, when she founded the Diller Teen Fellows, a yearlong leadership training course that pairs Israeli and American teens, culminating in a three-week summer trip to Israel. The program now has cohorts of 20 kids in seven pairs of cities, with Los Angeles and Tel Aviv joining in 2007.
The Helen Diller Family Foundation runs under the umbrella of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.
In addition to the teen programs, Diller’s foundation supports projects as diverse as a comprehensive cancer center at UC San Francisco, educational programs in Israel, the de Young Museum in San Francisco and an annual award for outstanding Jewish educators in the Bay Area. Diller says she is hands-on in the process, often meeting recipients and visiting grantee programs.
The teens, she says, are her favorites.
After she saw the high caliber of students in the Teen Fellows program, Diller was inspired, along with her daughter Jackie Safier and Jewish Community Endowment Foundation director Phyllis Cook, to establish the teen awards.
Diller has been at the cutting edge of a trend where teens are increasingly harnessing the idealism and passion that for decades had been dismissed as naïveté. Raised on a diet of esteem-building and confidence boosts — not to mention community service requirements in schools and an ability to use technology — for the last 10 years or so teens have been coming up with their own causes, creating infrastructures and spreading the word to build successful, and impactful, organizations.
Diller’s award is the ultimate validation for her young winners.
“This award has really broken any further barriers of doubt of what I feel I can accomplish to make a difference and bring change to the world around me,” said Shelby Layne, a Harvard-Westlake senior who was a 2008 recipient.
Over the past three years, Layne has raised $70,000 for Jewish World Watch to fund solar cookers for women in Darfur, so that they don’t have to risk getting beaten or raped when they leave the refugee encampments to collect firewood. Layne was attracted to the solar cooker program’s direct and easy impact — one cooker costs $15 — and she began to make and sell jewelry to raise money for Jewish World Watch. She also started a club at Harvard-Westlake to raise awareness.
Now with this prize money, she plans to “pay it forward,” she said. Aside from purchasing more solar cookers, she is funding a Jewish World Watch graduate student intern for three years to work with middle and high school kids. She is also planning to fund members of Harvard-Westlake’s Darfur Awareness and Activist Training Club to go to Washington on Barack Obama’s hundredth day in office, when Darfur-oriented organizations will gather for a day of lobbying.
Layne’s project had all the elements the Teen Tikkun Olam Award selection committee looks for: passion, competence and an executable vision with the power to sustain over time.
“We look at how the project will impact society both now and in the future. The project should be addressing some ill in the world, some aspect that is being under-addressed by the broader community,” said Barbara Rosenberg, chair of the selection committee. While many projects focus on Darfur, Layne “came up with an immediate solution to an ever-growing problem,” she said.
Last year, 90 teens were nominated. This for the first time teens can self-nominate. Nominations are due Feb. 17.
The competition can be tough.
Fred Scarf, a Birmingham High graduate, has raised about $100,000 for his Shiri Foundation, mostly from grass-roots fundraising, apparel sales, and the $36,000 from the Diller Award.
Shiri, who died while they were in high school, never got to go to her prom, so Scarf’s foundation throws proms for teenage cancer patients. Scarf, a student at UC Berkeley, hopes to get a medical advisory board together soon and then to begin awarding research grants in two years.
Shira Shane, a graduate of New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, won the grant in 2007 after being nominated for the prize by Jewish World Watch for her efforts in founding TAG, Teens Against Genocide, which gathered teen groups across Southern California to raise awareness about the violence in Sudan.
Part of the prize money went to help pay for her education at Stanford. After her freshman year, Shane, a biology major and artist, volunteered with a group called Support for International Change in a rural village in Tanzania where she taught kids AIDS prevention, and also ran a choir for them. She decided to use the grant money to found a program, through SIC, that will teach AIDS prevention through the arts in Tanzania. She plans to go to Africa to set it up this summer.
“The award made me feel like there are definitely other people out there that recognize the impact that teenagers can have,” Shane said. “The award has inspired me to continue with community service and to take on projects that normally a young adult or teen wouldn’t have a chance to pursue.”
Nominations for the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards are due Feb. 17.