Local Book-Loving Teen from Voorhees Wins $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award

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Voorhees’ 15-year-old Alexa Grabelle, who created the Bags of Books program, was chosen as a national recipients of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.

 

There’s something in the water over in Voorhees, N.J.

For the second year in a row, a Voorhees resident was chosen as one of a handful of national recipients of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, which recognize those who are creating social change locally and globally.


Last year, Voorhees’ then-19-year-old Marissa Hacker won for creating the organization Fantastic Friends, a social group inspired by the struggles of her twin brother, Matthew, who has autism.

This year, an award goes to the town’s 15-year-old Alexa Grabelle, who created the Bags of Books program, which delivers books to kids in underserved communities.

Then there’s 18-year-old Eli Wachs from Bryn Mawr, who also was one of 14 teens nationwide to win this year’s award, a project of the Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

Wachs is being honored for creating the High School Heroes SX program, a youth movement that aims to inspire kids to make change with incentivized competitions and global projects.

Other 2016 award winners are from California, northern New Jersey, Missouri, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York. In the 10 years since the awards program began, it has disbursed more than $3 million to Jewish teens.

Grabelle is one of the younger recipients of the award, but she’s been working on her project for years; the idea for it first came to her when she was just 10 years old.

“I learned about the educational summer slide,” she said, “which disproportionately im-pacts low-income students who often lack age-appropriate books at home. As an avid reader myself, I was upset to learn that this loss of educational skills over the summer adds up over the years and can significantly disadvantage these children’s educational progress.”

When she discovered that children who lived just minutes away from her were among those who might be affected by this inequity, “I knew I had to do something,” she said.

She and her mother worked together to figure out how to collect books and how to select local schools to host pop-up book distribution events, during which children come and select a free bag of books to take home. Bag of Books soon turned into a family affair. Along with help from her parents, Grabelle said, “my little sister and grandparents also volunteered to sort, transport and distribute the books.” Hundreds of local volunteers have also pitched in.

Being Jewish was a strong influence on Grabelle as Bag of Books grew.

“The principles of Judaism have taught me that it is my obligation to do what I can to commit myself to the idea of tikkun olam,” she said. “Since a young age, my Jewish education, as well as my family, have taught me about tzedakah, and the tenet that giving back to my community is an important mitzvah. All children regardless of background should have an equal opportunity to obtain the resources and skills they need to succeed in school and life.”

In the five years since the project began, more than 75,000 books have been donated to students in need and to under-resourced schools and libraries.

Bags of Books is now working on a partnership with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, as well as forming connections with large companies to host internal book drives.

But it’s the impact on the individual that has given Grabelle the most personal satisfaction.

“At my first book distribution event, I knew my project was a success when a first-grade girl approached me after receiving a bag full of books, hugged me tight, and said, ‘This is the best day of the school year!’” Grabelle said. “I love seeing the children break into smiles when they select the perfect books for them. Whether they want books about science, sports, mysteries or history, they light up when they put them in their bags to take home to keep.”

Grabelle, Wachs and the other 12 teens will be honored at a celebratory luncheon in San Francisco on Aug. 22.

Contact: lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747

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