Voices: Where teens learn the rewards of giving

Each year, the high school students of Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation learn how to give money away. To make their community, and their world, a bit better.

voices 2018 image
Voices students discussing their final grant allocations. From left: Tyler Spiwak, Josh Levitas, Carly Colen, Sari Gluck, and Max Marino.

Doing good. Sometimes, it's a two-way street.

Each year, the high school students of Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation learn how to give money away. To make their community, and their world, a bit better.

In the process, the lessons the students learn are, by their own account, priceless.

"In my life now, I have a different outlook," said Abbey Finn, who this past year was sophomore at Buffalo Grove High School. "I know how to read a budget. I understand the story behind the numbers. I can see the back story that I couldn't before."

During the first year of the program, known as Voices 101, two dozen teens spend a full school year learning how to create and run an actual foundation. To kickstart the effort, they get $25,000 from an anonymous donor. 

Then they raise additional funds. Decide the foundation's priorities and requirements. Request proposals from charities seeking funds. Review and winnow down the requests. Analyze the details and budgets of each one. Question the finalists face to face during site visits. Champion the causes nearest and dearest to them. Make final decisions about which efforts should be funded, and for how much. And finally, actually award the grants.

Through the entire process, they learn Jewish values and concepts of charity, and figure out how they apply to the real-world decisions they are making.

"I've never seen a program that enables teens to do this," Finn said, "where we are treated like adults and given such power and opportunity."

Teens who continue in the program become Voices Alumni, further honing their philanthropic skills, raising the funds on their own (with the help of a matching grant), and mentoring the 101 students.

"I've been in Voices three years," said Jeremy Stein, who recently graduated from Glenbrook North, and is now headed to Miami University in Ohio. "Each year I learn more about making an impact as a person of the Jewish faith. We're fortunate to be able to do these things, to help people who can't."

"It's connected me with all of these other Jewish teens from all over the Chicago area who I never would have met," said Carly Colen, who this past year was a Buffalo Grove junior. "They all want to give back."

While the teens in Voices gain invaluable life and business skills, the greatest impact comes from experiencing first hand the good they are doing, and the effect it has on people's lives.

The story of one woman in particular stuck with Jacob Kline, a Lane Tech sophomore this past year. Six of the woman's friends contacted SHALVA, the Jewish community's domestic violence program. The agency explained that, in order for SHALVA to help, the woman needed to make the contact herself.

But rather than leaving it there, Kline said, SHALVA helped her friends discuss the situation and options with her, which allowed her to seek help on her own.

"SHALVA was able to not only help the woman, but help her friends help her," Kline said. "That went above
and beyond."

Stein, the Glenbrook North alumni member, said that for three years he has supported funding overnight camp scholarships for students in Keshet, a program that promotes the inclusion of children and young adults with developmental and learning challenges.

"I've been able to see the impact these scholarships have," he said, "because I've been a camper and counselor there. I love what they do."

When Max Marino, a Highland Park High School junior last year, was in his first year of Voices, the group provided start-up funding for a project called Gendernauts, a Jewish Child & Family Services effort to provide a safe space and counselors for LGBTQ teens and those questioning their gender.

"A couple of weeks later," Marino said, "I saw an ad on Facebook saying 'Graciously Funded by Voices.' We had funded this incredible thing. It made me very happy." 

Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation 2017-18 Grants

Voices 101:
$30,550 Awarded

SHALVA, Night Therapy

SHALVA offers confidential domestic abuse counseling services to the metropolitan Chicago Jewish community in a culturally sensitive and caring environment. This grant will support additional therapists to see clients in evening hours.

Response, Mental Health Services for Teens

Response provides prevention, outreach, counseling, and sexual health services in a teen-friendly environment that empowers youth to make healthy life choices.

The ARK, Dental Clinic

The ARK is a nonprofit social service agency that provides medical care, food, and other basic necessities to more than 4,000 families throughout the Chicago area. This grant will support its free Dental Clinic.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Teaching Trunks Program

The Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost and by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice, and indifference. This grant will support the Teaching Trunks Program, an experiential teaching mechanism that engages under-funded schools in Holocaust education and awareness.

Holocaust Community Services, Financial Assistance

Holocaust Community Services helps ensure that Chicago-area survivors and their families continue to live independently and with dignity. This grant will provide financial assistance for necessities like utilities, food and other life-sustaining needs.

JUF, Annual Campaign

The Annual Campaign is the primary resource powering JUF's support of more than 100 agencies and programs, including Voices.

Voices Alumni: $30,180 Awarded

Keshet, Camp Keshet

Guided by traditional Jewish values, Keshet provides educational, recreational, vocational, and social programs for Chicago-area individuals with intellectual disabilities. This grant will provide nine financial-need scholarships to families sending their kids to summer camp this year.

EZRA, JUF Uptown Cafe & Food Pantry Program

EZRA's services alleviate homelessness, hunger, unemployment, and other barriers to self-sufficiency, while ensuring that Jews who live in poverty remain actively connected to their heritage. This grant will provide hot meals and bags of groceries through the JUF Uptown Cafe & Food Pantry programs, which feed hundreds of people each year. 

Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, Action Camp & Youth Engagement

The Alliance promotes safety, support, and healthy development for LGBTQ youth in Illinois through advocacy, education, youth organizing, and research. Action Camp is a 5-day sleepaway camp that brings together young leaders from across the state to sharpen their critical lens, strengthen their own anti-oppressive frameworks and actively skill-share and practice what it means to create spaces where all identities are safe, supported, affirmed, and celebrated.

Jewish Vocational Services, Job Coaching Support for Youth and Adults with Disabilities

JVS provides career counseling, job skills training, job referrals, financial literacy, small business development, and more. This grant will support job coaching for youth and adults with disabilities.

JCC, J at School Program

J at School offers year-round after-school, before-school, enrichment, School's Out, and Adventure Camp programs. Staff guide children through entertaining and academically enriching activities, assist with homework, and provide a nurturing, safe environment where kids can learn and grow. This grant will subsidize the cost for dozens of students.

JUF, Annual Campaign

The Annual Campaign is the primary resource powering JUF's support of more than 100 agencies and programs, including Voices.

Total 2017-18 Grants: $60,730  

Joel Schatz is the director of News and Information for the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.


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