Like mother, like daughter, even when it comes to tikkun olam.
When Rachel Wagner was younger, she started volunteering for Next Door, an organization that provides personalized early childhood education to under-resourced children in Milwaukee. Now, her daughter Ella is volunteering with Next Door for her bat mitzvah project.
“I really wanted to do something face-to-face with somebody and help them, and I really love being with little kids and helping them,” Ella said. “I really like to babysit, and I was really excited when I found out that I could read to little kids for an hour at a time and just spend time with them.”
Ella is participating in Read With Me, a volunteer program where community members read one-on-one with Next Door students between the ages of six-weeks to five-years-old. She is also organizing a book drive through Next Door for her bat mitzvah guests to donate.
“Read With Me provides the foundation of building language and literacy and the social and emotional benefit that comes from reading with somebody,” said Missy Hodzinski, a volunteer and community specialist at Next Door.
The Read With Me program benefits around 700 children each year, and Next Door is able to expand the reach of their literacy programs through a mobile library that they take to partnership sites throughout Milwaukee, according to Hodzinski.
Ella started volunteering with Next Door around a month ago and has enjoyed the connections she was able to make with the children she read to.
“It was really fun. The kids were really cute and little. They were really nice, and they were fun to be around,” Ella said. “It was also just fun to teach them by reading to them.”
The Wagners are members of Congregation Shalom and believe that community service is a vitally important part of the path to a b’nei mitzvah.
“Service is part of being a responsible member of the community as you are entering symbolically into adulthood,” Rachel said. “The importance of being a responsible community member involves giving back to your community with service, time and any way that we can try to make the world around us a better place. It’s the concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.”
Volunteers like Ella are essential for Next Door to aid in building literacy skills. Younger volunteers tend to be the most popular with the children, and the students gravitated towards Ella as she read them picture books, according to Hodzinski.
“The first five years are pivotal for building [literary and social] skills, so the support of sending books home and building the love of reading and language by reading stories and spending the time together will show success later in life,” Hodzinski said.
Ella intends to continue volunteering with Next Door, even after her bat mitzvah on April 29.
“We have the books. But it is the volunteers that bring them to life,” said Kim Brooks, communications and development specialist for Next Door. “You can see how beautiful that is when you see the way Ella and a student interact and enjoy a shared story. It’s magical.”