Three San Diego Teens Receive Tikkun Olam Award for Extraordinary Service

by Alex Wehrung September 6, 2019


tikkun-olamThe definition of Tikkun Olam is to ‘repair the world’–it is not as much a mandate as it is an aspiration, to leave the world a better place than one found it. Every year, the Helen Diller Family Foundation awards $36,000 to teens who facilitate this sort of change, whether it’s in their own communities or somewhere else around the globe. Of this year’s fifteen winners, three are from San Diego.

John Finkelman, Beatriz De Oliveira and Ethan Hirschberg’s projects all reflected causes that each of them feel passionately about. Respectively, their projects deal with providing resources to refugees, giving children to books to promote their literacy, and creating a resource for families and children with autism.

John, a first-generation American, started the Equal Voice Initiative after the Red Cross
would not assist him in providing activities to refugees settling in the United States. John’s goal was to provide them with assistance and resources, so that they would not fall into poverty. The initiative also serves people in marginalized communities and those struggling with poverty.

“We give donations,” John explained. “We have donation campaigns, and we donated backpacks and school supplies, like pencils, erasers, pens … we’ve donated all sorts of stuff. Clothing as well, and we definitely hope that that has had a pretty good impact on people and that it’s helped children at under-resourced schools–the basic utilities that they need to be a successful student.”

The initiative also teaches things like hands-only CPR (instructing pupils to perform chest compressions to the tune of the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive”), how to navigate public transit and English-speaking skills. John estimates that the initiative has helped between 1,000 to 2,000 people with their English.

“We have people who come, maybe, to three or four lessons just to solidify what we teach them, and they definitely learn and their English gets better and they talk to us. They can have pretty good conversations with us and they ask us to start intermediate English lessons, so that’s what we’re working on now.”

Equal Voice has served over 5,000 refugees thus far, mostly people in the City Heights area. “And City Heights of course does have a very high refugee population, but so does El Cajon. So that’s been an update target of ours, expanding to El Cajon.”

“It’s definitely a great honor to have been selected [for the award],” John said, “and I can’t thank the [Diller Family] Foundation enough for the award, and all that it means.
I’ll probably be using the money to further my education and go to college.” John has been accepted to Stanford University, and is interested in potentially studying humanities and technology.

Beatriz was inspired to send books to children living in at-risk communities and developing countries. Her initiative, Books for a Change, has helped nearly 10,000 children from San Diego to Brazil. Thus far, Beatriz has raised $5,000 for books and materials, along with 1,000 donated books. The initiative sends bookshelves with 10 books per age group (0-3 and 3-6) to Brazilian daycare programs.

She often receives requests for assistance directly from Brazilian daycares, though word of mouth amongst her initiative’s volunteers also helps spread awareness.

Beatriz is also creating an educational curriculum for the daycares Books for a Change assists. “Normally we do teach in-person, you know, [to] the daycare facilitators; how to best read to the children, but we really want to release this curriculum and really see the tools that we’ve gathered for them worldwide. We’re in the process of making a video with all these steps to teach all women in Brazil, and all men, who work at these daycares how to collectively read to the children, facilitate reading and suggest activities that they can do with some of the books that we’ve given them.”

“We’ve actually been working on donating the books in large containers versus bookshelves,” Beatriz said. “Doing a little combination of both, but what the large boxes have been allowing us to do–we tested it out–our last donation was one with the box, it was two weeks ago, I think. It really is going to allow us to donate more books to more places in Brazil. A lot of daycares in Brazil aren’t really accessible by person, because they’re in really dangerous areas, they’re extremely crime-filled, and so it’s much easier to donate if we were to ship the boxes.”

Ethan started a blog called The Journey Through Autism, which provides insights into his personal dealings with high-functioning autism–the blog has a readership of over 40,000.

Ethan was inspired by the ‘creator versus victim theory.’ He first learned of this theory “in eighth grade, during my pre-confirmation class at my synagogue. My youth director said that when there is a situation that you cannot control and can be seen as negative, you have two options: to feel like a victim or to become a creator and create the life that you want to live. I chose to become a creator!” Thus, his blog was born.

“For me,” Ethan said, “I love to blog because writing calms me down when I’m upset and allows me to express myself in ways I would not have been able to. I also like to write because it’s fun!”

He also goes on speaking tours to educate about autism, decrease bullying in schools, and to educate professionals and teachers how to accommodate clients/pupils with autism. “When touring, one main piece of advice I give to children is to become the creator in their own situation. Whether it’s on the playground or in a household, they can create their own path.”

To celebrate the teens’ achievements, an awards ceremony and luncheon was held on Aug. 19 at a Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, where John, Beatriz and Ethan met the twelve other award-winners from around the country.


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