By Nathan Glovinsky
We unwrapped the industrial-sized palette to reveal a mountain of neatly packaged Quaker oatmeal staring back at us. One by one, the boxes were unloaded and taken inside the Hand Up Youth Food Pantry, where a group of volunteers had gathered at 8am to start sorting donations. Some went straight to the assembly line, where high school MJROTC cadets and Girl Scouts were putting together kosher food bags. Others were routed to the pantry shelves to await transportation to Jewish Family Service of San Diego’s Corner Market and other food distribution sites. Box in hand, I paused at the open door leading to the storage pantry. After four years as a teen leader in the Hand Up Teen Leadership program, I still didn’t know where we kept the oatmeal. Perhaps it was the consequence of waking up too early on a Sunday or the flurry of distractions that accompany managing a group of volunteers, but what I lacked in sorting knowledge I made up for in resolve. Years of Sunday morning pantry sessions, monthly leadership seminars, and legislative advocacy meetings lent purpose to my high school experience and altered my path for the better. I look back on my time as a Hand Up Teen Leader and recognize how important this program was to my development as a student and a leader.
The Hand Up Teen Leadership program is nationally-recognized and offers high school students an opportunity to learn about social change while making a measurable impact on the San Diego community. Students from different schools and communities are united in their passion for social justice and philanthropy, and work together for a whole year on projects and programs that address food insecurity in the community. Under the mentorship of program coordinators, Teen Leaders create projects to help alleviate the short-term effects of hunger, while gaining organizational and advocacy skills to approach the problem from a long-term perspective. While one monthly meeting might comprise a strategic brainstorming session for a community fundraiser, another might include a guest presentation from the Mayor of San Diego’s office. Students learn about policy, as well as tactical approaches aimed at reducing the rate of food insecurity in the County. Hand Up is much more than just a local food pantry or advocacy group: it is a carefully constructed leadership program which helps to foster the next generation of student activists.
My volunteer efforts with Hand Up introduced me to the many faces of hunger and helped me to better understand that food insecurity is deeply interwoven with other socioeconomic and community issues. While some people dealing with food insecurity may be homeless or living in poverty, many military families, single parent households, and elderly throughout San Diego County are also at risk. Even among my own classmates and neighbors, there are those who may be struggling to put food on their tables. Hand Up taught me that social issues often transcend perceived stereotypes, and the only way to educate yourself is to challenge what you think you know about the issue. As a sophomore in college, I am now involved in many aspects of higher education advocacy. I work with other student leaders on issues of accessibility and equity, and often feel surprised at how little I actually know about the obstacles students from other communities face. I felt the same way five years ago when I first started in the Hand Up Teen Leadership program, but remember the way I was challenged to see things from a new angle. In my continued advocacy efforts, I will always be indebted to the way Hand Up taught me to examine my biases and see beyond the labels ascribed to social issues.
The unique opportunities provided through Hand Up also made me a more confident student leader and helped me see my potential to affect change in the community. Not many students ever get the chance to stand on the floor of the State Assembly or Senate, but every year our team was welcomed warmly by California’s top-ranking legislators to speak about our program’s initiatives and outcomes. These trips to Sacramento are both humbling and incredibly validating, lending heightened credence to the program and student activism in general. I will always remember my first lobby meeting in ninth grade with Assembly Member Toni Atkins’ office, and the way her staff actively listened to what we were saying. It became clear that the meeting was not a photo opportunity or simple courtesy for them: it was a real opportunity to collaborate for positive community change. Whether it’s a lobby meeting in the Capitol or a news interview at a local station, Hand Up is an organization that amplifies student voices and ensures that young activists have a seat at the table. Because local and state leaders take the students seriously, the students are motivated to take the program seriously as well.
The Hand Up Teen Leadership program gave me the skills, networking opportunities, and confidence to be a student leader in the community; and for that I will always be thankful. When I reflect on my high school experience, I think of football games and dances. But I also think of Sunday mornings in the food pantry sorting granola bars, and of long nights stuck in the airport after a long day of lobbying. Above all, I think of the friends I’ve made and the dreams we have for our community and futures. The world is in need of leaders who will work tirelessly to making it a better place; and I smile knowing that there are Hand Up Teen Leaders out there who are up to the challenge.
Jewish Family Service of San Diego is now accepting applications for their award-winning teen leadership programs, Hand Up Teen Leadership and Girls Give Back. To apply, or to learn about what’s in store for JFS’s next cohort student leaders, visit jfssd.org/teenleadership.
Nathan Glovinsky is a sophomore at UCLA studying History and Religious Studies. He participated in the Hand Up Teen Leadership program for four years, and served as Co-Chair for two. At UCLA, he is active in both the Jewish community and undergraduate student government.