By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Some families play together to stay together, as the saying goes. But for the Gardenswartz family of La Mesa, it is a shared commitment to community service that binds them.
“I’m fortunate to have the ability to be able to write checks, but I love the gratification of actually helping people, being there and doing it,” Allison Gardenswartz said. “I feel like my kids have seen that and learned first-hand what that feels like.”
Allison’s two oldest kids — Jacob and Sophie — have learned so well from their mother that they are both currently in charge of nonprofit entities that serve the San Diego area.
Jacob is the executive director of ImpACT on Stage, a nonprofit that uses theater to address student issues such as bullying.
“In our mission statement it says ‘by students, for students’ so the idea of not only the actual program being facilitated by students but also the executive leadership being done by students,” he said “It’s something that is really important to us.”
Jacob founded ImpACT on Stage in 2014 during the summer he graduated high school. He and fellow students Larissa Garcia and Alexis Newman based the organization off a similar high school group they were in called Theatre of Peace.
“The other students who were in leadership capacities like myself, also felt really connected to it so we decided we wanted to try and make it something tangible,” he said.
Making a tangible nonprofit meant applying for tax-exempt status so the group could raise money for operational costs, which they did just as Jacob headed off to his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania to study communication, public service and public administration.
So how does a full-time student at an Ivy League school still manage an organization based in San Diego?
“We have a strong team here in San Diego and I do a decent amount of back and forth, but that’s certainly one of the challenges,” he said.
ImpACT’s team got stronger in April 2015 after Jacob was given a $20,000 grant from the Abercrombie & Fitch Foundation. He used the money to get more staff, which made ImpACT easier to run. And the addition of his mom Allison as director of educational programming also made running the nonprofit from college easier.
“I am a teacher and I was a principal, so my whole background is education,” Allison said. “I wrote all the curriculum when we started the program and now I go into the schools and teach the teachers or whoever is going to implement the curriculum in the school that will match the program.”
The pitching in with operating ImpACT is only part of the help Jacob gets from Allison and his father Daniel. An even bigger help is the inspiration he gets from their own community service.
“My parents modeled this idea really well that you have a duty to give back as much as you can,” he said. “What I’ve really benefited from was that it wasn’t just donating to charity, it was finding something that you feel really passionate about in a way that you feel uniquely able to give back. So for me that’s been ImpACT — it’s one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve ever worked with, so much so that I sort of can’t stop working on it.”
In addition to inspiring Jacob to start ImpACT, Allison and Daniel have also inspired their daughter Sophie to run another community service nonprofit — Serving Spoons.
“We’re a group of students and we meet once a month at my house in our kitchen to prepare and deliver healthy and home-cooked meals to families in need all across San Diego,” Sophie said of the 501(c)3 nonprofit that she is the current director of.
When Sophie was in eighth grade she got involved with Serving Spoons, just when the founder of the organization was graduating high school.
“[She] was looking for a rising freshman who would take over the organization so that when she went off to college it would continue to grow,” Sophie said.
And Serving Spoons has grown. When Sophie took over, Serving Spoons was serving five to seven families a month with a crew of six to seven volunteers.
Now the group serves eight families, a total of 26 people, and has expanded to include a list of 75 volunteers from different schools across San Diego, including La Jolla Country Day, San Diego High and her own school, Francis Parker.
“I’ve tried to grow it to get more people involved because it’s been so fulfilling for me that I want to share that experience with others,” she said.
Meeting different people from varying backgrounds is also a fulfilling part of the work.
“We’re serving some Wounded Warriors; there’s a woman in the witness protection agency; just every kind of person you can imagine that we talk to,” she said. “We try and make it an informal, conversational environment. They tell us all the time that they look forward to it and it’s a highlight of the week.”
Cooking and delivering the meals is only two components of Serving Spoons, Sophie said. A third component is about the student volunteers learning healthy habits themselves.
“As the students go off to college, it is beneficial for them to know how to handle themselves in the kitchen,” she said.
When Sophie goes off to college, she said she is looking forward to passing the Serving Spoons torch the way it was passed to her.
“I’ve learned so much about leadership and managing a budget, all these skills that are so important in the professional world, I’d love to give someone else that experience,” she said.
For Allison, that could mean more time to dedicate to the other community service groups she is active in like Promises to Kids where she is a mentor for young adults who age out of foster care; or more time for Words Alive where she teaches a book group for adolescents in juvenile court schools.
Perhaps she will join her husband Daniel on the boards of charitable organizations like Hillel, Jewish Family Services or the Anti-Defamation League, for which he has been a past board member.
More likely, Allison will be helping her youngest Ryan in his own community service pursuits. Ryan is already pitching in with his older siblings’ organizations and even has the title of special assistant to the executive director of ImpACT on Stage.
“He doesn’t have a nonprofit yet, we’ll see, maybe one day,” said Jacob, laughing.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.