Teen spirit: Age proves no barrier to community activists

Teen spirit: Age proves no barrier to community activists

David Engle and fellow volunteers – and Clifford – at an event held for the Boys and Girls Club of Paterson.

Seventeen-year-old David Engle has helped plan carnivals since he was 8.

“We started out doing (Temple Israel of Ridgewood’s) carnival together,” said his father, Howard. “But David started doing more and more things, and in the past two or three years he has been running it on his own.”

Also for the past three years, the Glen Rock High School student has taken his carnival know-how on the road.

While in ninth grade, David founded Carnivals for Children on Wheels, organizing free events for thousands of disadvantaged and disabled children in the New York and New Jersey area.

In recognition of these efforts, the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York City presented him with its Youth Community Service Award as part of its Hometown Heroes program.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” said his father, pointing out that David’s commitment to social action began when he decided to do something to honor the memory of his grandmother.

“When I was six months old, I lost my grandmother to cancer,” said David. “Although I never knew her, I have dedicated much of my volunteer life to helping eradicate this disease.”

When he was 10, he raised $500 for The Valley Hospital’s cancer research department. And when he entered 10th grade, “I began my three-year commitment to Relay for Life as chair of my grade’s fund-raising committee.”

The run – a project of the American Cancer Society – “brings together more than 3.5 million people to celebrate the lives of those who have battled cancer, remember loves ones lost, and empower individuals and communities to fight back against the disease,” according to the organization’s website.

David Engle

David’s involvement grew in his junior year, when the Glen Rock contingent raised more than $50,000. This year he is co-chairing the project for the second time.

Perhaps most impressive is David’s Carnivals For Children On Wheels project, “born out of a desire to bring movable carnivals to children who could not otherwise enjoy them.” “Some family members had serious doubts; they thought the hurdles I would have to overcome were too great,” he recalls. “But their skepticism just fueled my drive to prove them wrong, and I did.”

His organization – whose work is showcased at www.CFCOW.org – has run dozens of carnivals “for all kinds of children: poor, homeless, disabled, abused, and even pediatric cancer patients.”

David wants to reach even more youngsters and is studying sign language at Bergen Community College at night so that he can also serve deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.

“Getting my business off the ground required an enormous effort,” said the young volunteer. “I had to manage budgets, solicit volunteers, customers, and corporate sponsors, engage in ongoing fund-raising and publicity, build and transport game booths, purchase inflatables and prizes, as well as hire clowns, magicians, and face-painters.”

“To get more ‘bang for my buck,'” he bought plush toys direct from a Pennsylvania factory, worked with a company to recruit corporate sponsors to donate giveaways, and negotiated with a distributor of prizes to reduce their rates in exchange for placing their logo on the carnival’s website.

“Since my company could not buy new carnival games, I built them from scratch using scrap wood from a lumber yard,” said David. “Running each carnival has required a lot of planning – fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle – and I have loved every minute of it.”

The teenage businessman said that, at first, “Many did not take me, a 14-year-old ninth- grader, very seriously.” Only the Boys and Girls Club of Paterson was willing to accept his offer, allowing him to run a carnival in its social hall for 350 inner-city children.

“My 25 high school friends were the carnival volunteers,” he said, adding that “although the volunteers had never been exposed to children of poverty before, the experience had a profound impact on them [and] many have eagerly volunteered to work at my carnivals again and again.”

Once other organizations saw what his group had accomplished, “they jumped on board,” said David, who has also been nominated as a community hero as part of a campaign launched by UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“In many ways, all of us associated with the carnivals have grown,” he added. “I knew all my hard work was worth it when a little girl, who just experienced a carnival, exclaimed, ‘This is the best day of my life!’ Then, when I saw children share the toys they had just won at my carnival with their brothers and sisters, I was touched. It made me proud.”

David is looking beyond the community as well, “thinking a lot about how I should make a more meaningful contribution to the world.”

Deeply moved by last year’s tragedy in Haiti, he has been thinking specifically about “how to create sturdy, lightweight, easy-to-assemble, hurricane-proof housing to serve the needy around the world in times of natural disasters.”

“Perhaps that will be my lasting contribution,” he said. “Only time will tell.”

David said that in reaching out to help others, “age doesn’t matter. You can always help someone in need,” he said. “Even a small thing can have a major impact, even if it only affects a few people.”

If everyone did that, he said, “the whole world would change.”


David Feuerstein learned about community service by watching his family.

“I’ve always seen the entire family be charitable and do volunteer work,” said the 15-year-old Alpine resident.

David Feuerstein

“I’ve learned that it’s nice to give back,” added David, a recipient in June 2010 of the Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson’s Community Builder Award.

David – who has donated some $30,000 to JFS over the past two years – said the idea of giving his bar mitzvah money to charity arose “when I was looking for a bar mitzvah gift and realized that there wasn’t really anything I needed or strongly desired.”

Shortly afterwards, he received an invitation to a party suggesting that in lieu of presents, guests donate money to charity.

“I thought maybe that was a good idea for me, too,” he said. “But no matter what charity I donated to, I wanted 100 percent control over every penny,” he said, explaining that he didn’t want simply “to write a check, but to know why it’s going there and be sure it’s being put to good use.”

His grandfather, Rabbi Irving Spielman – former rabbi of the Fort Lee Jewish Center – suggested that he donate the money to JFS. The organization, where his mother now serves as a board member, was happy to cooperate with him.

“[Executive director] Lisa Fedder printed out a spreadsheet for me showing every dollar spent,” he said, noting that his first donation went to help a couple who survived the Holocaust. “I paid for food and other needs,” he said.

Later, Fedder invited David and his father to a meeting where children would be selected for camp scholarships.

“They read stories of kids who desperately needed to go to camp because their families couldn’t support them,” he said, adding that he got “very emotional. The stories blew my mind.” One child, he said, had a father in jail; another had a mother with cancer.

Handed a folder of potential campers to fund, he said he couldn’t choose among them.

“Every story got worse,” he said. In the end, he subsidized each of the campers.

And not only has David given his own money, “but my sister and cousin are now into it,” he said, adding that he convinced his cousin to donate her bat mitzvah money to the organization as well.

He has also shared his volunteer spirit with friends at the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, N.Y., who join his weekly visits to the Kingsbridge Community Center in the Bronx to work with disadvantaged youngsters.

In addition, David is organizing a JFS bikeathon for Spring 2011 and has already laid the groundwork for the event. He and his father, Robert, are avid bikers.

Shira Feuerstein, David’s mother and co-chair of JFS’s Night of 100 Dinners fund-raiser, said David’s intense involvement as both a donor and a volunteer “has absolutely had an impact” on her son.

“He’s learned what’s going on in the community around him – real needs, not abstract. And he’s developed an appreciation for the wonderful life he has and appreciates everything.”

She said he was particularly moved hearing stories about camp applicants who come from broken homes.

“He knows what a wonderful experience camp is,” she said, and he is distressed when he hears about families without the means to send their children there.

Feuerstein said the people at JFS “have not hesitated to get David involved, even framing a list of the families he’s helped.”

Fedder, who presented that list to him at the group’s volunteer recognition dinner, said, “We wanted him to understand the array of social needs in the community. We educated him about what the needs were [so that he] got a feel for the kind of work we do here.”

Nor has David simply donated money, she said, “but he has stuffed envelopes as well,” doing hands-on work in the office when asked. In addition, “The whole family are some of the most delightful people you’d ever meet,” said Fedder, reeling off their volunteer activities, including regular contributions to the local food pantry.

His involvement with JFS has “definitely taught me a lot about life,” said David. Now, deciding what he wants for his 16th birthday, “I ask myself, how can I ask for a new video game when so many people need so many things, when someone can’t find a job?”


Justin Ort is “a typical middle child,” says his mother, Roberta, describing her 15-year-old as “very giving, very charming, but strong-willed and persistent.”

“When you give him something to do, he just does it,” she said.

Among the things he does is help younger kids at his congregation’s Hebrew school.

Justin Ort

“He acts as a mentor,” she said, explaining that Justin – a student at Wayne Hills High School and at Shomrei Torah’s Hebrew High School -was tapped for this role by the principal of the congregation’s religious school.

His volunteer work there began almost three years ago, when the principal asked him to help out with a first-grade service. He enjoyed the experience so much that he began visiting the Hebrew school every Sunday to work with the younger children – something he continues to do.

“He tries to do everything he can to help at the school,” said his mother, who serves on the synagogue’s executive board.

Recently named Youth of the Year by the congregation’s Men’s Club, Justin has also engaged in numerous community service projects through the Hebrew High School.

Last year, he participated in the Midnight Run Project for the Homeless – which delivers prepared food and clothing to needy people in New York City – together with other members of the congregation.

“I helped organize a big portion [of it],” he said, “getting the supplies we needed” and ensuring that they were distributed. He also has volunteered at soup kitchens and is working on a project to donate materials to Cuban Jews.

Men’s Club president Stuart Millstein said in choosing the Youth of the Year – an award instituted by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs several years ago – he was guided by the input of school principal Karen Weiss, who “enthusiastically presented” Justin’s name.

Millstein, who also participated in the Midnight Run, said Justin seemed “very much to be in a leadership role there,” directing other volunteers and making sure everyone knew what to do.

“He’s always excited about something,” said his mother, whether helping others or learning new skills.

For example, in preparing for his bar mitzvah, he jumped with both feet into the religious life of the congregation, learning how to lead most parts of the Shabbat service.

“The only part I didn’t lead was Pesukei d’Zimra,” he said. “Now I not only go to shul but lead whatever parts I can,” he added, crediting this achievement to a desire to always learn more, whether in the synagogue or at school.

An accomplished saxophone player, Justin participates in the shul’s Friday Night Live program, which offers musical selections before the beginning of Shabbat services. In addition, the 11th-grader works as a ski instructor, fences in his school’s varsity team, coaches PAL lacrosse and, in the summer, works as a ropes specialist at Camp Veritans.

Justin said he encourages his friends to join him in his volunteer activities.

“I tell them why I volunteer and how I get a warm sense of accomplishment,” he said. “After the first time [they volunteer], they realize it as well.”

“I feel that every time you do something – whether it’s Jewish or helping someone with homework or teaching someone to ski – when they start to understand it, it reflects back on the person who’s helping. You become more of a person when you help someone out.”

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