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Jewish Teens Fan Out Across Pittsburgh for Day of Service

See this story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Weppler family's stay at the Ronald McDonald House began Saturday, when 3-year old Jackson Weppler underwent an organ transplant to replace his cancerous liver with a healthy organ from a 10-year-old donor in Allentown.

Since then, Leila and Patrick Weppler of Ursa, Ill., and their 4-year-old daughter, Isabella, have eaten most meals in the cafeteria at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC while Jackson recovers upstairs. The couple must pay for those meals themselves -- and must continue to pay for them for the next three to six months, while they stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Bloomfield as Jackson undergoes two rounds of chemotherapy, and numerous tests and examinations.

So it was a particular comfort, and a financial help, for the family to sit down Sunday to a lunch of homemade lasagna, salad and brownies made and donated by local teenagers as part of their annual service day with J-Serve, a community service event sponsored by the Agency for Jewish Learning, Mrs. Weppler said.

"They give their hearts and it gives us one less thing to worry about," said Mrs. Weppler, whose husband had to give up his job to stay in Pittsburgh for the months Jackson will receive treatment.

She worries about losing her own job back in Illinois, saying, "It definitely touches us."

J-Serve, now in its seventh year, is the largest single-day volunteer effort for Jewish teens in Pittsburgh, with more than 250 teenagers and preteens joining in an effort to fulfill the Jewish concept of "tikkun olam," Hebrew for "repairing the world," organizers say. In addition to making lunch for families at Children's, teens built a house for a needy family in Braddock, beautified a homeless shelter for teen mothers on the North Side, sorted building materials in Point Breeze, prepared a site for planting trees in Bloomfield, cleaned toys in Shadyside, visited seniors in the South Hills, packed donations at a Squirrel Hill food pantry, packed clothes for shipping to developing countries, sorted donated prom dresses for teens who can't afford to buy their own, beautified a day care for children of refugees, and cleaned a stream and a community center.

At the Ronald McDonald House, several teenagers laughed and chatted as they chopped strawberries for a fruit salad and finished baking the lasagna that the Wepplers and other families would eat later in the day. Participating in J-Serve, they said, gives them a chance to reconnect with friends in the Jewish community who might have scattered to other schools or neighborhoods, and contribute to the larger community as well.

Destin Groff, one of the event's group leaders, skipped swim practice and took time from her usual afternoon of Shady Side Academy high school homework to volunteer at the J-Serve event.

"Everything else is on hold, and it's just a day to help other people, which I think is really important," said Destin, 17, of Point Breeze.

Hannah Frank, an 18-year-old from Churchill who attends Woodland Hills High School, said she jumps at any opportunity to spend time with her friends in Pittsburgh's Jewish community, whom she sees less often now that she no longer attends a Jewish school. And she picked the Ronald McDonald volunteer site because it seemed as if it would be fun to cook for families there, she said.

"Just the basic need of food -- it's nice to provide that directly," she said.

Since they volunteered because they wanted to, not because someone required it, the teens at the hospital said they felt sure they would continue to volunteer during college and throughout their adult lives.

"This is more like a stepping stone, both in the Jewish community and the other communities we might reside in," said Emily Roman, 16, of Squirrel Hill, as the Pittsburgh Allderdice High School student took a break from pretend-eating the plastic play food that Isabella Weppler had been enthusiastically "selling" to her in the Ronald McDonald House's play room. "It's just the beginning of our path into community service."

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