Volunteer Voices

Erica Symonds, Diller CSI Fellow 2006-07, is now a sophomore at University of Wisconsin-Madison where she is majoring in international studies and political science. In preparation for heading to Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2011 for her study abroad semester, she is also brushing up on her Spanish by taking some extra classes. A graduate of Garrison Forest School, where she was captain of the tennis team and editor-in-chief of the yearbook, Erica credits her four summers at Pinemere (summer camp) for helping foster strong ties to Judaism. Because Erica wanted to get involved with the Jewish community and communal service, she knew Diller presented a perfect opportunity when she learned about the program from another Garrison Forest student who had been a Diller Fellow. Erica worked with third graders at an after-school program at Cross County Elementary School in fulfilling her Diller community service project.

Erica credits Diller for the communication, organizational and other leadership skills that she has put to good use in college. Not only is Erica busy with serving as the Academic Development Chair of her sorority, Delta Delta Delta, but she is also the Coalition Coordinator for the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) Fair Trade Campaign. In this capacity Erica has used her advocacy skills to put together a coalition to help make Madison a fair trade city. In addition, Diller helped her develop good time management habits, and Erica is holding down a part-time job in the box office of the Wisconsin Union Theater and serves as the Social Education Representative to the Student Employee Advisor Group. She continues to enjoy scrap-booking as her hobby when she has an occasional free moment!

For Erica, who acknowledged that prior to Diller she had led a pretty “sheltered” life, the most useful experience and the highlight of Diller was the opportunity to interact with other Jewish teens from diverse backgrounds and all levels of observance, from Reform to Orthodox. She believes that the diversity of the Diller Fellows “changed her as a person” opened the pathway to friendships with others that she did not have the opportunity to interact with before. It is especially meaningful to her that despite numerous differences in lifestyles and beliefs, the group bonded well and enduring friendships were made over the course of the year. A number of them keep in touch, seeing each other recently while many of them were home on the semester break this past December.

Erica visited Israel for the first time as a Diller Fellow. What surprised her most about that experience was how quickly she felt at home in Israel and that she “felt so comfortable” every where she went. She remarked that the Americans and the Israeli Diller Fellows had a terrific rapport, picking up where they had left off from the Israelis visit in the spring. Seeing familiar faces made the “transition seamless,” said Erica. She especially enjoyed her time with her Israeli host family and getting to know them on a personal level, but other highlights included hanging out at the boardwalk in Ashkelon, visiting the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and camping in the desert. Of the later experience, Erica exclaimed that “being alone in the wilderness with just the stars out at night was really amazing!” Erica says that her Israeli experience changed her and that living with the Israeli teens gave her a new perspective on the Jewish homeland. Although her Israeli counterparts are now serving in the military, Erica stated that Facebook enables them to keep in touch with the American Fellows.

Her advice to the current Diller CSI Fellows is to “be inspired and continue to be involved with the Jewish community, even when Diller is finished. Use your skills–you have the power to make a difference!”

Erica Symonds

Stuart Macklin is a Big Brother with Jewish Community Services’ Big Brother/Big Sister matching program. Since he started volunteering as a Big Brother in 2001, Stuart has mentored four teenage boys in Baltimore. These boys came from the kinds of family situations that cry out for the friendship and guidance that a Big Brother or Big Sister can provide – families that are affected by severe illness, the death of a parent, or divorce resulting in a single parent family. Some of these boys have emotional difficulties or academic challenges that have led to their dropping out of school.

Stuart takes his current “Little” out to dinner once a week. They just hang out and talk about life. Stuart invites his Little Brother to his home for Shabbat dinner, and they enjoy recreational activities together. For this boy, Stuart has become a positive role model. Studies show that youths who have mentors are less likely to engage in risky behavior such as drug or alcohol use, more likely to stay in school and earn better grades and have positive family and peer relationships.

Bracha Goetz, who coordinates the Big Brother/Big Sister matching program at JCS (which provides training and ongoing support to the volunteers) says of Stuart’s relationships with each of his Little Brothers: “Stuart listens, doesn’t criticize, and makes them feel wonderful about themselves. He builds on their strengths, sees their potential and their greatness and makes them aware of it, and he gives them purpose.” One of his past “Littles” is now working in Stuart’s architectural firm. Stuart also does other volunteer work, including rehabbing houses in South Baltimore.

Stuart Macklin