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) — Gabriella Cooperman was 5 years old when she witnessed the difference that therapeutic horseback riding made for Danielle, her younger sister with special developmental needs.
“I saw how wonderful and magical horseback riding therapy could be,” said Cooperman, now 14. “So when I heard that there were kids who needed the therapy but couldn’t afford it, I knew I wanted to help.”
With her mother’s assistance, the 5-year-old decided to set up a lemonade stand at an intersection near her Highland Park, Ill., home to raise the $500 necessary to send a young girl to a one-week therapeutic riding camp at Equestrian Connection, the riding center and stable where Cooperman’s sister also received her therapy.
But Cooperman quickly realized that just selling lemonade might not be enough to meet her goal, so she decided to include some homemade cookies, too.
Nine years later, Cookies for Charity is a yearly, weekend-long fundraising event that has raised more than $47,000 for Equestrian Connection.
“Every year I’ve doubled my fundraising goal and it’s become an annual tradition in the neighborhood,” Cooperman said. “People come to socialize, and even our mayor comes out as well.”
Typically scheduled for the weekend after school starts, she recruits about 30 of her friends to help sell lemonade, water bottles and two kinds of homemade cookies: a nut-free sugar cookie and a signature Heath Bar Crunch chocolate chip cookie. At last August’s Cookies for Charity event, Cooperman said they stopped counting after selling 6,000 cookies and 1,000 glasses of lemonade.
The planning (and baking) starts months in advance, she said. Cooperman has secured 24 corporate sponsors who support the event by providing many of the essentials. Companies like Kraft Food, Arm & Hammer, Argo and Domino Sugar have donated gallons of lemonade, water bottles and the pounds of ingredients needed for baking the cookies. Local businesses have provided equipment for storing the cookies, lunch for the volunteers, marketing material and the supplies for building and running the stand.
Even the Chicago Bears have thrown their support behind the event, donating a signed football that Cooperman auctions off during the weekend.
Cooperman, a freshman at Highland Park High School, said she will continue to plan a Cookies for Charity event every year through the remainder of her high school years. After she graduates, she hopes to pass on the fundraiser to someone else to run.
“The biggest lessons that I have learned from Cookies for Charity is that working hard is the greatest award ever and it’s a great feeling to help others,” Cooperman said. “I hope that I am inspiring other youth to support the idea of tikkun olam and making another person’s life better.”
JTA spoke to her about heroes who bake, the meaningful Jewish experience that she continues today and her Broadway theatrical aspirations.
JTA: What do you think are the important qualities of a hero?
Cooperman: I think a hero is someone who puts themselves after other people in need.
Who is your hero?
My mom: She puts me and my sister before her activities. And she bakes everything, all of our meals — even challah dough — from scratch.
Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience that you’ve had?
At my bat mitzvah, I was the first female on both sides of my family to read from the Torah. Reading from the Torah is important to me, still even after my bat mitzvah, and I read it at teen minyans for USY.
What kind of things do you like to do for fun?
I love acting and chorus and I perform in musical theater through my school. I am very active in my USY chapter, which I love so much. Being Jewish is very important to me. I also enjoy doing arts and crafts, hanging out with my friends and playing with my sister is a very important part of my life.
What would be your dream role to play on Broadway?
Ella in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” is one of my favorite roles.
What advice would you give to other teens interested in starting a fundraising event?
Don’t be afraid. Who cares what people say. If you’re doing a good thing for the world, other people will thank you.
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