It’s tough to knock community service. But — despite its worth — too many teenagers do it for the wrong reasons. They think it looks good for college. Or because everyone else is doing it.
Or — and this is not their fault — they join a group that parachutes in to some needy spot, does a few days’ work, then packs up and leaves.
That’s not what Adam Mirkine wanted this summer.
The Staples junior spent a solid 6 weeks working on several important projects. He got to know the families whose lives he was impacted. He understood that both “community” and “service” are equally important terms.
The organization helps high school dropouts earn GEDs. Adam’s group of 16 teenagers and 4 counselors tutored, but also worked side by side with the participants on work projects like gardening and demolition. The idea is that both education and job skills help transform lives.
During the 1st project — building a playhouse for a girl with mental and physical disabilities — Adam was peppered with questions. He was the 1st Jew many of the participants had met.
Education is a 2-way street, of course, and Adam learned a lot too. He met a former heroin addict who now works with drug abusers, and discovered ways of life unfathomable in Westport.
Another project — this one through Habitat for Humanity — involved renovating houses used by meth addicts.
After 3 weeks, the AJSS group went on the road. They spent 5 days in Birmingham, working on tornado relief. “Those people’s homes were totally demolished,” Adam says. “They appreciated what we were doing to the point of tears.”
They visited other service projects in Nashville and Memphis, then returned to Louisville for more work. The governor of Kentucky awarded them a special — and rare — citation for volunteerism.
There was another component to Adam’s summer: religion.
“I got bar mitzvahed, but I really didn’t know much from a Jewish point of view,” he admits. “This summer there was a lot of connections between our work, and Jewish values.”
An example: While they worked at a water purification plant, they studied a Torah portion involving water.
The group observed Shabbat — no travel, electronics or excessive work — and kept kosher.
“From a social perspective, every place I worked in was definitely not Westport,” Adam says.
“There was lots of poverty — broken glass, overgrown lots, gang signs. But also, people in Smoketown had never gone 5 miles away.”
A Youth Build counselor noted, “Everyone in this room will go to college. That’s expected. But for the kids we’re working with, it’s not probable.” Adam said he’d never heard that difference explained so starkly.
Returning to Westport, Adam says he has a strong desire to keep his Jewish ideals. He also has a renewed respect for his school, community, and the resources he enjoys.
At Staples, Adam is assistant director of Players’ fall production of “West Side Story.” He plays water polo too.
But, he says, he’s looking for his next community service project. This winter, he hopes to go to New Orleans.
He says, “This is the kind of thing that once you start, you never want to stop.”