It was the day the letter was supposed to arrive. The letter. Pining, I sat nervously. It was an exceedingly hot day and I sat by the front door, anxiously waiting to hear the echo of the mailman’s feet on the front steps and the cling of the mailbox lid against the railing. Sweat trickled down my back, as I pictured the type of envelope in which it would arrive, the contents of the letter, which would contain much more than As and Bs.
One minute. Two minute. At 4:00 p.m., the letter was deposited. I opened the door and took in the mail. I saw the envelope addressed to me, Justin Hayet, and I slowly ripped open the seal. “Accepted,” it read. The mildly intimidating community leaders, who fervently interrogated me, believed that I was destined for leadership. With one rip, I became a part of something far greater than myself. I became a part of the Diller Baltimore Teen Fellows Leadership Program.
The Diller program is a 14-month intense leadership development program where teens find a need for community service and individually act upon that need. I knew that I only had two years left of high school and that this year would be the ideal year to not only continue with my academic work, but to develop myself as a person, as a volunteer, part of a caring Jewish community.
Through Diller, I developed my own unique project based on what I know best: talking. I am a rather loquacious person, often to the discontent of, well simply, the rest of the world. For eight Sunday’s, my friends and I voyaged to Weinberg Terrace, to be paired up with a senior Ccitizen who would grace us with sacred conversation filled with lifetime lessons. To my utter amazement, my once forcedly-recruited friends embraced this opportunity. Without reservation, the residents unlocked their vaults of stories and heavily confided in the teens that were once looked upon as cold strangers. Knowing that my actions were responsible for showing a widowed woman that she was still important, that I wanted to talk with her.
One Sunday, a “frequent flyer” of the project, Ruth Chandler, gently pulled me aside. Ruth always appeared to be unsettled. However, as she sat down each Sunday to share her stories, she resurfaced as the animated young girl from her stories. Putting down her half bitten donut, and looking straight into my eyes, Ruth told me that choosing between the project and the birthday party for which she missed last week’s session was, “like choosing between families.”
Were it not for my endless preparation and management, Ruth would not have had the opportunity to shine infectiously each Sunday. She quickly gave me a hug as I saw tears forming, pinching my checks as she had done each Sunday. Knowing that I made such a strong impact on her life allows me remember the warm love that was collectively shared during such a cold winter’s day. However, my relationship with Ruth was one of many relationships formed over the duration of the project. On the last Sunday, I saw hugs being exchanged between my now passionate friends and their newly made friends.
Teenagers and senior citizens are often seen as an unlikely match, but the project I developed brought them together. All of my friends and I gained a tremendous amount.
With every step I take, I will remember the life lessons Ruth taught me, because, as Avenue Q so accurately affirms, “When you help others, you can’t help helping yourself.”