BY SHIELA STEINMAN WALLACE EDITOR April 27, 2016
Selecting a mitzvah project has become an important part of preparation for bar or bat mitzvah in Louisville, and young teens are selecting many worthy causes for their efforts. It is rare, however, for that project to become a passion that blossoms into a series of related projects that engage the young person and his or her family throughout high school and even plays a role in determining what college he or she chooses.
Yet, that is exactly what happened with Chad Kamen, and his efforts have paid off in an unexpected way. Kamen is one of 10 recipients of a $10,000 Kohl’s Cares Scholarship nationwide. And this is not the first time Kamen has received a high honor. Last October, he received a 2015 Youth Service Bell Award.
The journey started seven years ago. “I was trying to plan my bar mitzvah project and I was looking for something that I could do for speech team,” he said. Not wanting to do two separate projects, Kamen decided to focus on something about which he was passionate – food.
To fulfill his obligations, he devised a two-pronged project that focused on hunger relief and “trying to get back family dinners into American society,” he explained. “So I went on a mission my first year to try to become an event sponsor for the Hunger Walk.”
That was no mean feat for a 12 year old. The price tag to become a sponsor is $10,000. Kamen was undaunted. He created Team Food Chain, talked with all his friends at Kentucky Country Day and The Temple, sought corporate sponsors and worked with organizations like the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council and corporations like Whole Foods.
“My first year was crazy,” he said, but it was also successful. “I raised $15,000 and I really got some momentum back into the walk, which was nice. And then I’ve continued to do the walk, I continued to do it every year since.”
“There’s only so much you can do with the walk,” he observed, “and at some point and the enthusiasm starts to die off.” Undeterred and looking to find his voice again, in 2012 or 2013, Kamen “decided I would try to take Team Food Chain to the state and see if I could bring my project to effect, not just one county, but 120 counties all across the state.”
Kamen partnered with the Kentucky Association of Food Banks (KAFB) and tackled two initiatives: to get a license plate for hunger relief and to lobby for an appropriation for the Farms to Food Banks Program. He even became incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit organization in the process. While he was not successful in his efforts to get a license plate, he did succeed in securing support for Farms to Food Banks. Through these efforts, he also raised $22,500 for KAFB.
Farms to Food Banks, he explained, is an innovative program in which farmers get compensated for grade B produce, which “they can’t sell to supermarkets but is still perfectly fine to eat” and that healthy food goes to food banks. In April 2014. The state legislature included $1.2 million for the program in its two-year budget.
Today, Kamen is working with the Compassionate Schools Project, a partnership between the University of Virginia and the city of Louisville. The project is an “integrative approach to education in which they’re trying to bring … whole wellness education into public schools rather than just focusing on one aspect or another,” he explained. It addresses “the whole of the child,” covering nutrition, understanding emotions and learning how to deal with conflict with others by discussing differences in a productive way.
Last summer, Kamen was an intern with New Roots, “which is a really awesome food justice nonprofit that works out in the West End.” He also helped the Sandefur Dining Hall, a project of the Cathedral of the Assumption that has been feeding the hungry since the Great Depression, with their Let’s Dance fundraiser last June.
Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport “has been my mentor the entire way through and has been my true link to the Jewish Community of Louisville, Kamen said. He also named Dare to Care as a major partner and singled out Viki and Paul Diaz for their help on the license plate initiative and Barbara Sexton Smith for the Compassionate Schools Project.
“Team Food Chain itself was born out of a relationship between me and the Jewish community,” Kamen said, and over the years, he also counts The Temple, which is his home congregation, the Jewish Federation and the entire Louisville Jewish community among his partners.
“I could go on forever about all the people who have helped me,” he said. “It’s been beyond my wildest dreams how incredibly engaged everyone wants to be.”
Of his many partners, however, Kamen said his family has always been an integral part of his efforts, particularly his mother, Abby Kamen. “I’ve gotten to watch myself grow up,” he observed, “and also to watch her have this own journey on her really, not the side even. … We’ve been partners in this … [and] I’m so thankful for everything that she’s done for me.
“I can say for a fact I would not be the same person I am today without her,” he added. “I owe everything to her and my family. It’s been an incredible ride, not only getting to work alongside her as a family member but also as a business partner and someone who’s looking to change the world.” He also credits his sister, Samantha, for helping him with social media and collaborating with him on a song for the project, and his father, Craig, for his constant support.
While his volunteer activities have consumed large amounts of time, Kamen still found time for some normal teen activities. At Kentucky Country Day, he has been in the spring musicals and he runs cross country. “I try to keep myself sane by also balancing work and having friends and playing guitar and listening to music on the side, so mostly, my other hobbies are mostly just things to relax and unwind while school and this project have taken up a lot of time.
This fall, he will attend the University of Virginia. While he is undecided about his major – he’s considering both media studies and public policy – he has found a “really awesome minor, … social entrepreneurship which is something I definitely want to explore. It is basically a way to make business models that are also that are helpful to the communities they are engaging with” creating a sustainable stream of funding for charities.
Going to college will change things, Kamen acknowledged, but he still plans to continue his project. “My mom and I are trying to figure out where to go next,” he said. “We’re in a restructuring phase, seeing what our options are.
“I know for sure that we’re pairing up with the Compassionate Schools Project,” he said. When I committed to UVA, that was actually in the back of my mind. … I’m already partnering with them, now I just get to continue my efforts. And so for sure Team Food Chain will definitely continue.”