TORONTO — “Eighteen- to twenty-six-year-olds are the most idealistic people around,” says Max Kalles, who launched GROW Toronto, an organization that gives Jewish students and young professionals the opportunity to connect to their idealistic goals.
GROW participants lend a helping hand in one of GROW’s first programs last fall – making packages of food for Shabbat for needy families.
“But they feel paralyzed by their big dreams,” adds Kalles, 28, a Thornhill resident and IT entrepreneur.
Kalles hopes that GROW, launched last fall, will motivate students to achieve their dreams.
GROW, which stands for “Giving, Responsibility, Opportunity, Wisdom,” gives participants the chance to organize a program of their choice.
Past events – all of which were organized by students – included packing food boxes for Shabbat for low-income families, a Purim carnival for children with developmental disabilities, playing music for the elderly, a musical evening to benefit a cancer charity and two Jewish improv comedy nights, called Made Jew Laugh.
Currently based only in Toronto, GROW is hoping to expand into other cities this year by finding interested volunteers looking to start a branch in their area.
With more than 400 people registered as members of the organization’s Facebook group, students are responding to this approach.
GROW is now in the process of being registered as a non-profit so that it will be able to collect donations and expand its programs.
Kalles says that until then, volunteers will have to continue creating programming without any funding.
“We’ve done everything with zero dollars,” he says.
“By learning to be a giver, you can’t be apathetic,” Kalles says, adding that the student-run events also give participants an opportunity to grow as leaders and build skills.
“We’re not a chesed [kindness] organization. We use chesed to improve the individual.”
It’s a point echoed by Tali Dayan, 25, GROW’s director of development. She says they offer a unique two-fold opportunity for people to get involved.
“Our members change the world, but they also fundamentally change themselves,” Dayan says.
“We better the world and bring out the leaders in all of us.”
She says GROW gives all students the opportunity to take a turn running a program or event.
“It is because of this that we see our organization as the Wikipedia of charities – it is member-generated.”
Kalles says that’s what makes GROW unique, and what spurs change. He says the main reason people’s idealism often doesn’t translate into action is because of intimidation, and the feeling that a person is too small or inexperienced to effect any change.
“If everyone wants to do philanthropy, why aren’t we doing it? Students should be able to do philanthropy now,” he says.
For Mark Rootenberg, 21, a York University psychology student, that’s what has kept him involved in GROW.
He was first introduced to it by a volunteer, and was asked to host Made Jew Laugh, an improv comedy night last November, with funds going to Ronald McDonald House.
“I thought it was awesome. The place was packed to almost beyond capacity, and it was so much fun.”
Rootenberg also hosted GROW’s second Made Jew Laugh earlier this summer, and he says his favourite part of the organization is the guaranteed support for every project.
“If there’s a certain cause you want to do something for, GROW allows you to do something, instead of letting that feeling go to waste,” he says.
“And once you get involved in it, it creates a community of people to get together who help out on each other’s causes.”
That’s something Kalles likes to hear.
“When they organize events, they start to realize they’re not so powerless.”
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