WASHINGTON (JTA) — Away for the summer at her New Jersey YM-YWHA Camp, Jessica Baer watched a video about children enslaved in Ghana.
Baer, who was 10 years old at the time, realized just “how different my life was from theirs. I was hooked right away.”
The presentation was organized by Breaking the Chain through Education, a nonprofit that works to rescue child slaves and help eradicate slave trafficking by building schools in Ghana.
By establishing local schools in poor villages, the group provides fishermen and their children with educational opportunities and alternative ways of earning a living. In exchange, the trafficked children are set free and returned to life with their families. In addition, the funds raised enable the local schools to be successful by providing the necessary equipment, uniforms and curricular materials.
For her bat mitzvah project, Baer participated in walkathons and sold T-shirts “to almost everyone I knew” to help raise money for Breaking the Chain through Education.
‘You don’t really get it until you see the kids and hear their stories’
Now 14 and a freshman at Fair Lawn High School in New Jersey, Baer has traveled twice to Ghana with her family to bring supplies, meet with rescued child slaves and see the schools that she helped build.
“It was really amazing,” she said. “You don’t really get it until you see the kids and hear their stories. It’s an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Baer started a club at her high school this year to continue her efforts to raise money and support Breaking the Chain through Education. The club, which meets twice a month, has held bake sales, sold calendars and is planning a yearly event with dance teams and an auction.
For her work with Breaking the Chain through Education, Baer next month will receive the Young Leadership Award from Areyvut, an organization that seeks to incorporate chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam in the lives of Jewish youth.
“I did not expect it,” she said. “I never thought that could be me.”
Baer spoke to JTA about the person with whom she would have liked to have shared her work, what she hopes to be when she grows up and her other charitable passion.
Who or what have been the biggest influences in your life?
My parents are very involved and very charitable. They influence me to do good things.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
Passover. I like the story. We have a big family get-together with my mom’s side and my dad’s side. Everyone takes a part [in the seder], it’s a big event.
What do you think you want to be doing when you “grow up” or would like to be doing professionally in, say, 10 years?
A social worker, definitely. I want to help kids with whatever they are going through in their lives and to find their passions.
If you could have lunch or coffee with anyone and tell him or her about the work that you’ve done on behalf of Breaking the Chain through Education, who would it be?
Nelson Mandela. He was very inspirational and strong-willed, as I am. He stood up for what he believed in.
What advice would you give to other teens interested in getting involved with a special cause?
If you find your passion and what you like, it won’t feel like work. You have to be excited about it.
What kind of things do you like to do for fun?
Reading, horseback riding, Girl Scouts. I volunteer at a therapeutic riding stable once a week. It’s really fun and really helps the kids.