June 26, 2018

Helping Children in Need Write a New Future, One Story at a Time

While putting together the itinerary for the annual Koret Foundation-sponsored student mission to San Francisco, Shalem Director of Citizenship and Service Gila Rockman squeezed in a visit to 826 Valencia. “The focus of the mission is principally to introduce Shalem students to the richness and unique challenges of the North American Jewish experience,” explained Rockman, “ but I wanted to include a few, innovative projects that weren’t strictly Jewish, but which I thought might get them thinking.”

Through Writing the Future, Shalem students meet with Jerusalem’s poorest children to teach them writing skills and encourage them to see a college education as viable goal.

As it turned out, that quick visit would have lasting implications for the Shalem community.

826 Valencia, founded by author Dave Eggers, teaches writing skills to underprivileged children in the belief that effective communication skills are the key to success. And as it happens, writing is one skill Shalem students have in abundance. “That’s what we do here every day, think and write and then edit our thinking and writing some more,” said Lior Hasgall, the Shalem junior who determined to bring Eggers’ innovative idea back to Jerusalem. “It seems natural to bring this strong point to our community and use it to help improve children’s lives. This is an area in which we Shalem students can really make a difference.”

The result is Writing the Future, a collaboration of Shalem College and the Afikim Family Enrichment Association, which runs afternoon-welfare and learning centers for Jerusalem’s poorest children. Each week for the last six months, a group of Shalem students met with the second- to fifth-graders of the nearby Talpiot branch of Afikim to teach them writing skills, empower their sense of self-expression, and encourage them to see a college education as a worthy, viable goal.

“Learning to write well will help these kids succeed in school, and hopefully in their careers also,” states Shalem sophomore Ido Wolf. “But the value of these meetings actually goes far beyond the writing. They break down barriers in Israeli society between groups that would never ordinarily meet, and we learn from them as much as they learn from us.”

That, insists Lior, is precisely the reason why Shalem students both host the children at the college and travel to their neighborhood community center to hold meetings there. “When the kids come to a college setting, their world expands. They realize that higher education is a destination. Many of them don’t know that before joining the program. But,” she continues, “If the students are always coming to us, then we always have the home advantage. By switching off, we also get to experience a bit of their lives, and that helps us relate to them. The stories we write together are the better for it.”

The stories in question are each printed and bound in a book that the children “can hold, read, and be proud of,” says Lior, and from the looks on the children’s faces at the recent concluding event, it worked. Now, she concludes, the children need merely look at their creations to be reminded of what they’re capable of doing.

“Writing the Future was a great way to connect the different elements of the Shalem experience,” says Rockman. “The passion for active citizenship, the emphasis on writing as a means of developing one’s thinking, and the attempt to bring the outside world—in this case, the San Francisco Jewish community—into the curriculum—this program has it all. It was uplifting,” she finishes, “to see our students put the pieces together in such a powerful way.”

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