“The goal is to make community service part of what your life is,” says Academic Dean and Community Service Coordinator Susan Leonard. “In order to be a member of a community, you don’t just take from it, you give to it,” she says. In this regard, two seniors distinguish themselves: Cameron Wolfe, for his ongoing work with Newark Mayor and former BWL commencement speaker Cory Booker, and his work with The Pencil Promise, which brings free school supplies to those who need them; and Asher Bank, who both organized and played drums in a charity concert.
Cameron Wolfe: Bridging the Gap
While still a ninth grader at BWL, Cameron wrote a long letter to Mayor Cory Booker that explained his interest in politics and appealed for a summer internship. A family friend who had worked in a law firm with Mr. Booker handed the letter to his former colleague and, after a long interview with the public relations director, during which Cameron recalls he “asked exceedingly large amounts of questions,” he became the first high school intern in the Mayor’s office.
That first summer, Cameron typed up the “millions” of phone messages and letters that came into the office. He also helped organize the Mayor’s busy schedule, earmarking appropriate invitations. Child labor laws precluded him from working full time, but he said, “I really wanted to be there, even though I had to wake up at 7:00 and take the E to the PATH train.” He wore suits and read the Wall Street Journal. On one of his last days that summer, he attended a press conference with Mayor Booker, then Governor John Corzine, and Senator Robert Menendez. “I saw these people giving the cops morale and resources and I thought, ‘I want to do this.’”
He was asked back. After his 10th grade year, he got to do “more interesting things.” That summer, his primary task was to prepare briefing documents for daily meetings with the Mayor and his aides. “That was really amazing to see the back hand of government and how it all works,” recalls Cameron. Each morning, he would cull the local, national, and international news to find the twenty most pertinent stories for the Mayor, then write five pages of abstracts about them. This helped Mayor Booker to make the rounds of national talk shows when, “they might ask him about the GDP of Switzerland or about Iraq.”
By the time Cameron began his 504 community service hours this past summer, certain Newark budgets had been cut by 40%, the fire and police forces were shrinking, and underfunded schools were crowding and corroded. Amid this, Cameron had the job of reviewing the many applications for city grants. He would prioritize applications such as the one from a man who ran an AIDS clinic in his basement; he would “screen those that were completely outlandish.” He also helped research where the city might itself get a loan, which it ultimately did from the Port Authority. Finally, he wrote condolence letters to the families of teenagers who had been fatally shot and to the families of police officers shot in the line of duty. “When we look at the news, we might say, ‘Let’s just cut the budget by 50%’ and we go about our days, we can still have dinner, we can do our thing.’ We think – there’s one less cop on the block. But in this violent way, it really manifests itself … And Cory Booker is not giving up.”
Neither is Cameron. For a student with a challenging course load and college on the horizon, one might think this work with Mayor Booker would be enough. But Cameron has another prong to his community service that involves The Pencil Promise, a non-profit his mother founded in 2009 that donates school supplies to impoverished children around the world.
“Most people take something like a backpack for granted, but 170 million kids around the world are precluded from going to school just because they don’t have school supplies. We started [The Pencil Promise] to tackle this problem,” he says. Last year, Cameron made his first relief mission for the group to Dharamsala, in northern India, where the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959. In fact, the school where Cameron helped to distribute 1,000 loaded backpacks was founded by the Dalai Lama’s sister. “Kids flee [to Dharamsala], walking for months over the Himalayas,” he says, “just so they can learn how to read and write. In Tibet, this is illegal; they stultify, they try to kill the culture.”
Last spring break, Cameron helped to distribute another 2,000 Pencil Promise backpacks. Half were given to orphans in Laos; the other half to children living in the slums of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He came armed with letters written to these children (appearing in photograph) from BWL Fifth Grade students; he left with letters written from the Cambodian children. When he brought these letters back home, he told our Fifth graders: “These are kids your age living in a garbage dump – you are so different, but communication is possible.” According to Cameron, “bringing that idea to life is really important.”
“So,” says Ms. Leonard, “he’s not only doing this for himself, he’s passed this on to our students and gotten them involved. What else could you ask for?”
“It is humbling,” Cameron says, “to see that the level of what we expect and the entitlement we have for our lives and the comfort we want is so out of the world of conception for these people. The relation is extraordinary; the gap needs to be closed.”
Asher Bank: Drumming Up Support After collecting over $1,000 twice for AIDS walks and once for the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, Asher set his sights on an even more ambitious challenge this past summer. It was hatched in New Jersey, during a visit with his friend Mario, whose mother works for the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County. When Asher learned more about the Association’s support programs for depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses, he recalls, “Mario and I started thinking, we should put on a benefit concert. That could be a good, fun thing to do.”
The plan was to gather “a bunch of different types of bands” to play short sets “so it wouldn’t be too long in the tooth.” Fortunately, Asher had some friends to call upon. Having graduated from The School of Rock and drummed through Europe with their All Star Program during the summer of 2009, he remains friends with many young band members along the East Coast. “Definitely the challenge was finding the right bands to play. There were so many to choose from,” he said.
For the venue, Asher approached Asbury Lanes, a vintage bowling and music hall, to see whether they would donate their space for the late August night. In part because he had played there with his own band so well, they said yes. Steeped in its own 50-year history, “The Lanes” is just a half-mile from the legendary Stone Pony, where Bruce Springsteen played his first concert. (Asher has played there too!)
Planning went smoothly until the very morning of the 4:00 p.m. concert, when one band called to cancel. But the brotherhood of rock came to the rescue: the show manager’s daughter’s boyfriend summoned his reggae/ska band, Loose Fit, just in time for the show. They were joined by Mario’s band called Hello Freakshow; by ISpaceWalkSometimes, a hard rock band; and by Asher’s indie-rock band called Dirty Bird. Between the sets, Asher spoke about the cause of the benefit. As the proceeds would go toward teen suicide education programs, it was fitting that all the bands were in their teens. He also raffled off a set of bongos and a guitar, donated by his uncle’s music store on Staten Island. In sum, the event ended up raising about $3,000.
“This was my first real breakthrough combining my music and my community service. I definitely want to do this again next year on a bigger scale.” He adds, “I want to give more drum lessons to people who can’t afford them.” Encouraging a moment of reflection before these next steps, Ms. Leonard remarks, “Look at all the skills he has learned about organization, about asking people for things, about how to do publicity. What an incredible experience!”