By Deb Silverthorn
Young ladies in Dallas, Atlanta and Miami are making a difference as members of the Lemon Aide Society. Started at the beginning of the pandemic, an opportunity to connect for fun and mitzvot, the organization is now a 501(c)(3) that has touched dozens of organizations needing support. Registration is now open for the 2022-2023 school year as well as for this summer’s Camp Lemon Aide 2022.
When the pandemic closed the gym where Debbie Weinstein was coaching, she wanted to give her girls a way to be busy, to have fun and do good, even if from a Zoom screen. With 29 years’ experience leading the gymnastics program at the Aaron Family JCC, now at Texas Gymnastics in Mesquite, Weinstein set a goal to continue to teach self-expression, self-confidence and leadership. She met with Julie Cruz, who coached with her at the J, to create “something.” Although they were not sure what that “something” was, once lockdowns began, the parameters were all but defined, and the project went virtual.
“I wanted to do something with my community, and I wanted to take the young girls along for the ride. As a coach, it’s always about building confidence and inner strength. I knew we could do that while having fun and helping others,” said Weinstein. “Through Lemon Aide Society, we’re building our girls, building community and building relationships.”
She started with 36 youngsters. It wasn’t long before one of the campers, who had been Zooming in from Miami, Florida, asked to start a chapter there. From there, two chapters were added in Atlanta, Georgia, and the 2021-2022 school year ends with 12 chapters and 90 participants.
“I always leave with some new insight or idea of how to stand strong and I’m so glad that’s what they take away too,” said Rachel Berkowitz, an adult mentor and Plano native. The junior nursing major at Emory University leads the Atlanta chapter and assists with the Miami group as well with her cousin Mira Donsky, her Atlanta-group teen mentor. “My Atlanta girls happen to go to school together, but the relationships that come from this experience are like nothing else.”
Each month a member of Lemon Aide is assigned as project leader, and it is up to her to learn — and share to her peers — about whatever agency they are supporting. The girls create something tangible to deliver to the agency and for themselves.
“These girls are learning they can do anything — anything at all — by using their voices, caring about others and acting on that. They’re becoming aware of life and people around them, seeing how different some people’s lives are and taking time to think ‘what would my life be if I were the one on the receiving end,’” said Emilie Vannguyen, an adult mentor who is a NICU research nurse at UT Southwestern.
“It’s nice and fun to get clothes and shoes and art kits, but what is it like to never pick the clothes or shoes or supplies?” said Vannguyen. “I want to impact a positive experience and have these amazing girls truly take ownership.”
Lemon Aides have raised more than $14,000 for organizations, created art kits for the residents of CHAI, collected pallets of food and run a lemonade stand raising $300 for North Dallas Shared Ministries, held a bake sale raising over $500 for the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, painted and planted flowerpots for The Legacy Willow Bend residents and prepared more than 600 STEM kits for the children of Family Gateway.
They baked treats and delivered them to first responders at local fire and police stations and the Visiting Nurses Association and they made dog toys and baked treats which they sold, the proceeds supporting an animal shelter.
“I like that we help people and learn about the places we are supporting. It’s more than just a lesson or putting stuff together,” said fourth grader Sarah Karchmer. “We raised money for animals because animals can’t help themselves. The biggest thing I learned was as a leader you must include everyone and that’s not so easy when there’s lots of good ideas.”
Each year Weinstein presents a Using Your Voice event. The event was held virtually again this year so all Lemon Aides could hear from female principals of Be The Difference Foundation, Dwell with Dignity, Miami’s Jewish Community Services Kosher Food Bank, National Council of Jewish Women and Planned Parenthood.
Watching their daughters grow to care about others, to want to get together with their friends for fun — but for more than that — is more than fulfilling.
“The program is tailored to the girls’ interests and the lessons of leadership. For an elementary school student to be responsible this way will be long-lasting,” said Amy Sonkin, whose daughter Zoe and niece Sarah Federick started with the group in its first year.
Zoe, as project leader, has directed her group in collecting crayons that were prepped for pediatric hospital patients, in creating sand terrains for residents at The Legacy Willow Bend and in collecting food and books for North Dallas Shared Ministries. “They can’t just breeze through whatever they are working on,” said Sonkin. “I’m proud of how Zoe has grown in these two years because of this group. It’s very special.”
On April 3, Dallas’ Lemon Aides were at Jewish Family Service packing nearly 650 Passover food packages later delivered to members of the community. Creating cards for the recipients, and learning about JFS, left the girls with lessons in giving and a hands-on opportunity.
“It was incredible to see the passion and desire to make a difference, to do a mitzvah from such young ages! They were so eager to help,” said Kristen Jackson, JFS director of volunteer engagement. “This year we delivered more Passover packages than ever and we’re thrilled the Lemon Aides helped make that possible.”
Camp Lemon Aide ’22 will be held from 9 a.m. to noon the weeks of May 31 and July 25 on the campus of Ann and Nate Levine Academy, and the week of June 6 at Family Gateway. Campers will do a daily service project and enjoy art, STEM, cooking and other activities, each week culminating in a mitzvah project that the campers plan. The week at Family Gateway will be shared with children that the agency supports.
The camp at Family Gateway was initiated by Lemon Aide teen mentor Lindsay Shiller, a junior at Parish Episcopal School, who has applied for a program-supporting grant.
“We’ve done projects supporting Family Gateway and I thought it would be meaningful, for both populations, to meet and to work — and play — side-by-side,” said Shiller. “I’ve known Debbie since I was a little girl and the same way she coached in the gym she coaches us to believe in ourselves. We pass that on to the Lemon Aides.”
“We want these young women to find their strength and believe they can do anything,” said Weinstein, “because they can.”
Lemon Aides membership is open for the 2022-2023 school year as well as for teen and adult mentors. For more information, for registration or to support Lemon Aide Society, visit LemonAideSociety.org.