Founded 35 years ago, Gesher Disability Resources has grown with and adapted to the Greater Phoenix Jewish community. When the organization started, according to Gesher’s executive director, Amy Hummell, it was serving children of parents who didn’t understand what to do with special needs children. Now the membership has aged, with a majority in their 30s and 40s. However, there was something missing — they had bypassed teenager involvement and energy. Gesher recently began a teen fellow program to fill that gap.
When Hummell learned that J Teen Connect was contemplating a grant program for teens to take leadership positions in the Jewish community, it was the impetus they were waiting for to create the position and choose a fellow. The first step was to put out the word for applicants at schools, synagogue youth groups and anywhere teens might see it.
Joseph Varcoe, who will be a senior at Horizon High School in Scottsdale in the fall, learned of the opportunity through BBYO. After submitting an application and writing an essay, he earned the title to be Gesher’s first teen fellow. Hummell expects that giving Varcoe the chance to create something from scratch will pay off, bringing more attention to the organization and its goals, as well as more applications next year.
“We want to be young, and we want to be relevant,” said Hummell. Varcoe will be giving back to the community while also taking a measure of responsibility in his six months of attending Gesher programming. Hummell hopes this fellowship will demonstrate to other organizations, that may be contemplating how they too can involve teenagers, a way to focus on personal engagement while making sure teens know what’s going on in the community and to feel they have a space in it.
Varcoe will experience all of the focus areas for Gesher: education, social, religious and residential. Hummell doesn’t want his time to be focused on fundraising but rather brandraising — letting people know the organization is there and how to be involved with it. “We’re raising awareness about Gesher,” Hummell said. “More than that, we’re raising awareness about disability.”
“One thing a teen initiative can help with is amplifying voices,” said Amanda Watsky, director of J Teen Connect. “It’s a trend in a lot of communities to have them be heard and heard on their own terms.” While there’s a tendency to say it’s important to include teens, including them in the conversation isn’t often done, and that’s what Gesher is attempting to change.
“People have stereotypical ideas of how teens can contribute, and I think it’s limited off of age and experience,” Watsky said.
After six months of involvement, Varcoe will be expected to create a final project which will be teen-produced and teen-led. There will be no expectation as to what the project will be. Hummell is excited to see the final result. Gesher will also not put barriers on what Varcoe does with the grant money.
Hummel is optimistic by what she’s seen so far. Varcoe and two other teen volunteers, Evan Silver and Asher Norton, are giving much more time than she expected. “What I am enjoying the most is that they want to be involved, and as I was describing the opportunities we have, Joey wants to do more,” Hummel said. “That’s the most exciting thing — it’s something that has resonated with him. That means he’ll be able to help so many more people. Being comfortable, respecting other people — it’s a big deal,” she said.
“I was really excited, because I really want to learn about different people with different mental capacities,” Varcoe said. “I want to become more educated overall. I want to learn how to be better with interacting with people.” He’s also looking forward to future friendships and the opportunity to be a role model.
“I’m trying to become a better person and citizen in society so I can treat everyone how they deserve to be treated and be open-minded,” he said.
In terms of the project he’ll create, he’s taking a wait and see approach. He likes sports and describes himself as active and is hoping that will play a part. “But it all depends on what the members want.” JN