Izzie Levinson, 16, grew up in a family that is devoted to community service: Her father, David Levinson, is the founder of Big Sunday, an extensive regional volunteer program that grew out of a Mitzvah Day project; her mother is a highly accomplished TV writer who left that work to become a drama and writing teacher in an urban high school; and her older sister and brother are both active volunteers. But it’s important to Izzie to do more than follow in their footsteps.
She wants to demonstrate her ability to choose her own projects. That’s why she traveled to Senegal, Africa, last summer through the Putney Student Travel program, where she lived in a village of about 600 and worked on a construction project, shoveling dirt to make bricks.
“I think this summer … was probably the big turning point for me,” the Oakwood School 11th-grader said of finding her own voice as an activist. “It was probably the best experience of my entire life.”
Levinson also works with the Oakwood School Chiapas Project, which connects students at her school with the indigenous people of Chiapas, a region in Mexico, whose women have formed cooperatives to produce handmade goods, including clothing and purses. The Chiapan women send their handiwork to Los Angeles, and the students in the Oakwood Chiapas Project sell them through special events, then send the earnings back to the cooperatives in Chiapas.
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For Levinson, it’s an easy sell. “The clothes are incredibly nice,” she said.
And as if all that weren’t enough, she recently started volunteering for Reading Partners, tutoring at a school in Leimert Park. She also participates in video-conferencing chats with Afghan high-school students and experts in global affairs through the Global Nomads Group, a nonprofit that creates interactive educational programs, and she helps organize ARTribe, an annual art show of works by high-schoolers that raises funds for medical and prenatal care in Nepal and Vietnam.
Because part of the ARTribe gig is asking adults for donations, Levinson has gained a lot of experience in talking to adults.
“I think, for teenagers, there’s sort of this, not awkwardness, but apprehension, about addressing adults in a really straightforward way … that was just a really important life skill to learn,” she said.
It’s common for chronic volunteers to say that they get more back than they give. And that holds true for Levinson, who said she’s found that volunteering has helped her in many ways, including putting her in contact with people whom she otherwise would not have met and increasing her awareness of the world’s diversity.
Levinson might be trying to forge a path different from the one her father took, and she admits she hasn’t read his book, “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins,” a self-help guide to volunteerism — “I have read snippets of it,” she said, laughing — but she sounds more like him than she realizes. She had high expectations for how she would help in Senegal, but she found, once there, that her work wasn’t having as big an effect as she had hoped. Rather than letting this bring her down, she realized, as her father says, that when it comes to volunteering, it’s less about the “what” and more about the “how.”
“One of the most important aspects of community service is the feeling of doing it together,” she said. “This feeling of, regardless of what your background is or where you come from, everybody can participate and everyone can form their own community that doesn’t discriminate and is incredibly accepting. And where everyone can gain something from one another.”