Carmel Valley teens Beatriz De Oliveira and John Finkelman were recently named recipients of the 2019 Diller Tikkun Olam Award, receiving $36,000 each for their efforts to build a better world by improving the lives of refugees and promoting childhood literacy.
The awards promote and empower Jewish teens who demonstrate and exemplify the spirit of tikkun olam, a central Jewish value meaning “repair the world.”
Beatriz, who will be a senior at Torrey Pines High School in the fall, was honored for her nonprofit Books for a Change which promotes childhood literacy in San Diego and her native country Brazil.
Finkelman, an 18-year-old 2019 graduate of Canyon Crest Academy, was recognized for his work with the Equal Voice Initiative, his organization that provides refugees with resources to help them adjust to their new lives in the United States.
Beatriz and Finkelman were among 15 Jewish teens across the country to receive the award, the vision of Bay Area philanthropist Helen Diller. Now in its 13th year, the Diller Tikkun Olam Awards have given more than $4 million dollars to teenagers who are working to make a difference.
“Now more than ever, young people are on the front lines of change, leading the way for our communities and the world,” said Jackie Safier, president of the Helen Diller Family Foundation and Diller’s daughter. “The 2019 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awardees are confronting the most difficult and divisive issues of our time by bringing passion, commitment, and their own personal engagement. These teens remind us that people of any age can make a difference in the world, and they are inspirational examples for us all.”
“It was an honor to be selected,” said Beatriz, 16. “It’s really incredible to be among like-minded kids who have also done amazing things.”
Books for a Change
Beatriz was born in Brazil and lived there until she was 3 years old. While visiting relatives a few years ago, she accompanied her grandmother to one of the local public daycares, called “creches.” Beatriz came to donate some toys as her grandmother taught English lessons there and was surprised to find that there were no books in the daycare.
Beatriz found that due to the lack of books, the children from thousands of daycares like the one she visited go into the educational system unprepared, lacking the most essential foundation of reading.
At just 14 years old she started Books for a Change, with the idea to donate book shelves filled with books to the public daycares, to help spread literacy and expose young children to reading, something she has always loved.
“My ultimate goal is to foster a love for reading in all children because a love for reading is so important,” Beatriz said.
Her hope is that a love for reading will provide opportunities, allowing for a brighter future and keeping young children from continuing down the path of poverty and violence that prevails in the favelas and poor suburbs in Brazil.
“This year we reached 10,000 kids helped in Brazil, it’s been pretty exciting,” said Beatriz, who has also donated bookshelves in Mexico and locally in San Diego.
Along with donating books, Beatriz is creating a curriculum for daycare instructors in developing countries to go with the provided books and is also creating an online series in Portuguese to teach daycare workers in Brazil how to read to children in an engaging manner.
Beatriz has also worked to get more young people active for the cause—last year Books for a Change clubs were started at Poway, Mt. Carmel, Del Norte and Rancho Bernardo High Schools. Each club holds drives and distributes books throughout San Diego in partnership with the nonprofit Words Alive.
“I was in shock,” Beatriz said of finding out that she won the Tikkun Olam Award. “I’m so excited to have set aside some money for college and to further my passion to be able to provide more books to more schools and increase the impact that I can have.”
A voice for refugees
Finkelman started the Equal Voice Initiative in the summer of 2017, inspired by the hardship his family members faced when immigrating to America. As a first generation American, he identifies with those who are unsure of where “home” really is.
“I haven’t been inside the Carmel Valley bubble my whole life,” said Finkelman who up until five years ago lived in low-income areas. “I wanted to reach out to my former community and give back.”
Finkelman began to volunteer with the Red Cross and through his work with resettlement organizations in City Heights and El Cajon, he wanted to do even more as he saw gaps that just weren’t being filled.
When he wasn’t able to create his own planned activities with the Red Cross, he decided to create his own nonprofit. Finkelman and a group of CCA friends brainstormed about what is lacking and what would absolutely help newcomers to America.
Offering classes two times a month at the City Heights Library, the Equal Voice Initiative partnered with other nonprofits to deliver educational supplies and provide life skills to refugees.
After witnessing firsthand the effects poverty has on families and the challenges it brings to the process of building a life, he knew he could make a big difference by just helping people to understand finances: money management, how to eat on under $4 a day and where to put their money. He also focused on teaching English, basic legal rights, CPR, one-on-one tutoring and how to use the San Diego public transit system.
“The whole experience has been incredible, it is really amazing to help refugees,” Finkelman said. “When you come to this country it can be scary...if more people tried to help refugees and welcome them, our society would get better.”
Through his classes, he has heard some of the scariest stories about the lives refugees have escaped: “It’s good that they’re in America but now we have to help them adjust to America.”
Since its founding, Equal Voice has served 5,000 people and raised nearly $8,000 which has gone toward clothing and educational supplies and donations to SAY San Diego, Goodwill, San Diego Food Bank and local churches.
Finkelman said he was “thrilled” to be named a Diller Tikkun Olam recipient for his efforts.
“It’s really an honor to be selected and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to help others and to bring more attention to the organization,” Finkelman said.
Finkelman is heading off to Stanford in the fall and he is not sure yet what he will study. All he knows for sure is that he is determined to change the status quo.