The Teen Heroes column is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit http://dillerteenawards.org.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — With her $4.50 weekly allowance, Adena Rochelson wanted to fill an empty shelf at a local food pantry near her upstate New York home with toiletries and cleaning supplies.
After soon realizing that she would need more funds and supplies, Rochelson — then a fourth-grader — launched a social action project that would raise awareness of the shortage and provide much-needed toothbrushes, shampoo, toothpaste and soap to nearby shelters and food pantries.
“I realized that involving other people was the way to go,” said Rochelson, now 15.
Operation Soap Dish, which she dubbed her project, has been growing steadily since its inception in 2009. It now partners with supermarkets, toiletry manufacturers, synagogues, churches and fraternities at Syracuse University, near her Fayetteville home, to collect and distribute more than 28,000 items.
For her work with Operation Soap Dish, Rochelson, a 10th-grader at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, was awarded a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award in 2014. She donated part of the $36,000 prize to her organization and plans to save the rest to help fund her college education.
“The biggest lesson for me has been learning that even the smallest efforts can matter the most,” Rochelson said. “Just the act of using my $4.50 allowance was really the biggest thing that I could have done.”
She spoke recently to JTA about her favorite Jewish experience, what she would like to say to President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress, and her advice to other social action-minded teens.
JTA: What do you think are the important qualities of a hero?
Rochelson: A hero is someone who sees the problems in his or her community and is inspired but not overwhelmed. They realize the power that they have to change those problems.
Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience that you’ve had?
I go to Camp Ramah in New England, and just having Shabbat, especially Havdalah — which is my favorite service — standing in a circle with my friends with the light of the candles is very memorable and meaningful.
What kind of things do you like to do for fun?
I like to ice skate and hang out with my friends. I like to bake. Cupcakes are my new thing right now. And I like to play with my dog, Max.
What do you think you want to be when you grow up?
I definitely want to stay in the nonprofit world or maybe social entrepreneurship or business. I’m not sure yet, but I have some time to figure it out.
If you could have lunch or coffee with anyone and tell him or her about Operation Soap Dish, who would it be?
Either President Obama or members of Congress. I’d want to talk about changing the food stamps program or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) policy that says people can purchase a soda but not soap. I think that’s kind of ridiculous.
What advice would you give to other teens interested in starting a social action project?
Definitely go for it. Tell yourself that the worst thing that can happen is someone says no, and then you are no worse off than you were before. Be willing to try new things and find your passion.
Please tell us about teens who deserve attention by sending an email to email@example.com.