JRA’s Annual Gala Highlights Kids Who’ve ‘Grown up JRA’

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Young children help out at JRA
The JRA believes that even the youngest among us can derive benefit from volunteering. (Courtesy of JRA)

Interested in raising a mensch? The Jewish Relief Agency has just the recipe.

Here’s a hint: Mom was onto something with that sharing-is-caring thing.

JRA is holding its annual Event to End Hunger on Dec. 3 at the Crystal Tea Room, and this year’s theme is “Recipe for Raising a Mensch.” The event will underscore the developmental benefits that have been found to accrue to children given early exposure to acts of giving, sharing and volunteering.

Because JRA serves more than 6,000 diverse low-income individuals, including more than 600 children under 17, it finds itself situated as the ideal organization to introduce children to values the Jewish community has long cherished, like empathy, generosity and community participation.

“That’s why, in concert with this year’s Recipe for Raising a Mensch theme, we’re highlighting our Tiny Tots program,” said JRA Executive Director Jodi Roth-Saks. “Even the youngest of kids in our community can learn attributes like gratitude, compassion and the importance of volunteerism by coming to JRA one Sunday a month to pack boxes alongside their parents. And a lot of our younger families in our community are very much interested in teaching these values to their kids and doing some public service together as a unit.”

Given the work the younger members of the JRA community have put in, one aim of this year’s event is to acknowledge the budding philanthropists, particularly those who’ve volunteered time and energy with their families since they were kids — those who, in JRA parlance, have “grown up JRA.”

It’s also an opportunity to highlight the work that the JRA does to provide assistance to their peers whose access to food cannot be taken for granted.

“This year, we’re highlighting our family-friendly food initiative, which is a supplemental bag of food we give to families with children under the age of 16,” Roth-Saks said. “Most of the kids we serve are on SNAP (the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), but it’s always good for them to have additional items to pack for lunch or snacks for after school.”

Hunger and food insecurity among adolescents has been a focus in schools and in the media of late, especially in the case of high school athletes, who often don’t have the fuel their bodies need to perform at a high level.

A recent Philadelphia Inquirer report found that “Food insecurity has caused high school athletes in the Philadelphia area to cope with hunger in drastic, often unhealthy ways for generations.” One former student mentioned in that report, Simon Gratz graduate Nydair Rouse, who now plays football for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, recounted a story of fighting hunger by drinking enough water so that eventually his stomach would feel full.

“Before I came to JRA, I was working with students who were facing similar issues, and we were feeding hundreds of students per year through that program,” says Roth-Saks, who came to the JRA from West Chester University, where she was a co-founder of The Resource Pantry there. “It’s incredibly important that a light is being shone on that particular issue.”

Several speakers and videos will punctuate the evening’s activities. Some of the videos will offer late-night-show-style levity, then Roth-Saks will take to the dais to give what amounts to JRA’s annual state of the union address. She’ll speak about the families JRA is serving, how they’re doing and what the state is, generally, of hunger in Philadelphia.

“And, of course,” Roth-Saks added, “I’ll be talking about what more can be done to build Jewish community around public service.”

One particular highlight will be the recipient videos. The stories of two individuals who regularly receive food boxes from JRA will be told, their experiences interacting with JRA’s young volunteers shared.

The ultimate goal of JRA is to, one day, not have an annual gala, for there to be no need for an Event to End Hunger.

“The goal is to put ourselves as an agency out of business, right?” Roth-Saks said. “But for now, our goal is to lower the number of food insecure individuals in Philadelphia.”

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