Monday, September 16, 2019 -
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Jewish teens help Colorado Springs recover from forest fires

Three of the AJSS volunteers, Mari Pangoura, Megan Klingensmith, Jennifer Serwin“THE ONLY ray of light was our shower at the end of the day, especially when we spent the day cutting down trees burned in the devastating fires in Colorado Springs,” says 16-year-old Gabi Burkholz, who resides in San Diego, Calif.

“Seeing the burned trees on people’s properties in the Black Forest really impacted us because we realized how long it can take to recover.”

During July, Burkholz spent three weeks volunteering alongside 21 teenagers and four staff members in the greater Colorado Springs community.

The group traveled to Colorado Springs through a program coordinated by the American Jewish Society for Service (AJSS) in conjunction with Camp Mountain Chai (CMC).

Although AJSS’ headquarters is in Maryland and CMC is based in San Diego, the volunteers traveled from across the US including Arizona, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin and several other states.

“We slept on the floor of the preschool classrooms at Temple Shalom, which was fun and kept us cool at night,” says Emma Epstein, AJSS program director.

Along with the four AJSS staff members, the teenagers were responsible for the daily activities of their group, including organizing their meals and cleaning up after themselves.

The volunteers utilized Temple Shalom’s kosher kitchens, the classrooms and the social hall, as the synagogue served as their “home base” for the three weeks of volunteer work.

“We are so grateful to Temple Shalom for acting as our home base because without that we wouldn’t have been able to contribute to the community and help people in need,” Emma Epstein says, as she reviewed the hectic schedule for the next day of volunteer work.

After the devastation of the Black Forest fire in the summer of 2013 and the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, many homeowners and organizations remain in need.

According to the El Paso County assessors, the Black Forest fire cost in excess of $85 million, including the destruction of 486 homes.

Three hundred and forty seven homes were destroyed in the Waldo Canyon fire in addition to businesses such as the historic Flying W Ranch, which commanded 1,800 acres and was known for its traditional chuck wagon dinners and Western style entertainment.

“It was all nitty gritty and dirty because by the end of the day, we were covered in dirt and soot,” says an AJSS volunteer from Rhode Island.

While at Flying W Ranch, the volunteers helped with fire mitigation and reforestation efforts.

At Venetucci Farm, a historic 190-acre pumpkin farm, they pulled weeds and helped the staff with routine maintenance.

These experiences enable the teens to learn about leadership, broaden their horizons, bond with other teens and experience life in a community different from their own community.

ONE OF the primary principles of AJSS is “change lives yet start with yourself.” The activities in the summer program are geared toward contributing to the community, and bonding and maturing as an individual and as a group.

“It’s in the uncomfortable spaces where real growth occurs,” says Epstein, who is in the graduate school social work program at the University of Chicago.

“My role with the group is part social worker, part mentor, part parent and part babysitter.

“We share struggles and issues in our discussions at night and focus on activities that will benefit each teenager as well as the group.

“Since the teenagers are between the ages of 16 and 18, this is a perfect time for this type of growth.”

April Aaronson, one of the other four AJSS staff members, believes that “we don’t get to choose who is in need. Although at times the volunteer work isn’t always what the teenagers expect, they learn that every community has many needs and they recognize that people come from very different walks of life.”

As a teenage participant of the AJSS summer program six years ago, Aaronson has stayed in touch with AJSS over the years. From San Francisco, she is a recent math and economics graduate of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

Another staff member, David Kenton, teaches geometry and algebra at the Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix, Ariz.

Adam Rose leads trips through Birthright Israel, is the director of the Youth Symphony in Montreal and plans to attend medical school.

AJSS’ mission is to build Jewish leaders through service in communities in need across America. AJSS seeks to link social justice with Jewish values and to challenge the way the teenagers view the world.

Since its founding in 1951, AJSS programs have served 160 communities in 48 states. This summer, its resources were focused on Colorado Springs.

When the teenagers begin the three weeks of volunteer work, they bond quickly since they have attended Camp Mountain High in California over the years.

“We love to get back together each summer. To work in a different community is a great way to do that,” says a teenager from Kansas.

“Plus, we are faced with new challenges, are encouraged to grow and develop and deepen our friendships.”

Some of the other Colorado agencies where the volunteer group has worked are the Marion House Soup Kitchen, Black Forest Together, Care and Share Food Bank, Pikes Peak Urban Gardening, a preschool in the Black Forest and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute.

“WE RELY on volunteers since so many families in the Black Forest still have burned trees two years after the tragic fire,” says Donna Arkowski, volunteer coordinator for the non-profit Black Forest Together, which was created in the aftermath of the fire.

“In two years, we have recruited 150 volunteers.

“As a former volunteer firefighter and EMT, I know how difficult this type of work is and how long it can take.

“Recovering from a crisis like this takes so many years and requires the genuine support of many people and organizations.

“This homeowner lost not only her home but her business, so the helping hands really make a difference,” says Arkowski.

During its stay in Colorado Springs, the group spent time sightseeing, hiking, camping and getting to know the local community.

Jake Sherman, who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Temple Shalom in Colorado Springs, participated in the AJSS volunteer program during the summer of 2014 in Memphis, Tenn. His mother, Joanne Sherman, recalls that “the trip gave Jake a new understanding about the importance of giving of oneself to the community.

“He enjoyed working in the food banks and found that tutoring underprivileged kids at a local church was rewarding.”

Jake is now a senior at Cherry Creek High School in Denver.

At the end of the three weeks, the group will return to Camp Mountain High in California, although the camp itself was evacuated due to fire dangers prior to their travel to Colorado.

“Now we understand better what it’s like to go through this type of experience since our own camp was affected,” says Gabi Burkholz.

“We are proud to demonstrate one of the mottos of AJSS which is ‘Jews Doing Service: Save World, Then Eat!’”

Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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