Shaaray Tefila teens Ilana Segal and Max Shapiro are co-leaders of Backpack Buddies – a program that helps sustain children in need over the weekend by providing backpacks filled with nutritious meals and healthy snacks. They started as volunteers at the age of 13 in 2015 helping the team pack backpacks. As they became “regulars” at packings, they took on more responsibilities. By 2016, they were managing the packings and food inventory as well as creating the weekly menus and translating them into Spanish. In 2017, they began mentoring younger volunteers – teaching and guiding them through the tasks required to keep the program running smoothly – and leading our fundraising efforts. Now high school juniors, Ilana and Max have become the face and voice of Backpack Buddies, speaking about our mission with Religious School families and at various Shaaray Tefila events.

We asked Ilana and Max to share with us what it means to them to be part of Backpack Buddies as volunteers and program leaders.

What drew you to Backpack Buddies?

Ilana: When I first encountered Backpack Buddies, I didn’t immediately realize what I’d found. As I learned more about it and its mission to feed hungry children, I decided I wanted to get involved. I started by helping at packings, and although I wasn’t a huge fan of all the heavy lifting, I found I really enjoyed both the purpose and the strong sense of community and commitment among the volunteers.

Max: The reality of how Backpack Buddies help families is what initially drew me to it. For middle school, I attended East Side Middle, located across the street from Stanley Isaacs, which is one of the sites where the program began. I saw the kids every day in my neighborhood who received our backpacks and needed food. Before I got involved with Backpack Buddies, I would have never guessed that kids weren’t eating in my area because their families couldn’t afford it. That’s why I had to help. I hope this helps these families worry less about eating on the weekends.

What inspires you about community volunteer work?

Ilana: I enjoy being a part of the Backpack Buddies community because it reminds me how lucky I am. It’s refreshing to step back from the pressures of school and life and realize that there are more important things than a calc test or a new phone, like having enough to eat. So many people are surprised to learn that there are families not even 20 blocks north of us that don’t have enough to eat, and I like knowing that the people we are helping are nearby.

Max: Community volunteer work is inspiring to me because of how people respond to it. It’s amazing to see everyone come together and do something for the greater good. Also, it’s amazing to see people enjoy themselves doing a good deed for their own community.

In your time as team members and program leaders, what aspect of your work in helping Backpack Buddies to grow, makes you most proud?

Ilana: I have been proud to watch Backpack Buddies grow and evolve as we went from packing 12 backpacks a week to 40 a week and have loved becoming an integral part of the Backpack Buddies Bat Mitzvah process. I enjoy mentoring the younger students who are pursuing backpack buddies as a mitzvah project, watching them learn and grow to feel real pride/ownership of the program. It’s especially rewarding when they return after their bat mitzvah as high schoolers. Backpack buddies has become part of my life, and I will certainly have a hard time leaving it behind for college. It is reassuring and rewarding to know that I have trained people to follow in our footsteps when we move on.

Max: Koins for Kids makes me personally proud of my Backpack Buddies work. Last year I came up with the idea when I found change around my house. I counted and rolled it and was surprised that one sandwich size bag was over $100. I thought a loose change drive would be a great idea for a fundraiser. We shared the idea with our Backpack Buddies volunteers, friends, and local schools and were astonished that we gathered over $3,000. This year we are doing it again and hope to exceed last year’s massive number. It is inspiring to me to see people want to continue to help and support Backpack Buddies every year to feed more kids. The coin fundraiser is currently in progress. Email me at to schedule a pickup from your doorman (every coin counts!).

Interested in volunteering or making a gift to fill a backpack?
Learn more about Backpack Buddies »

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