January 18, 2019

Area teens’ impactful outreach rewarded with Tikkun Olam awards

After witnessing the change made possible by an alternative court program for juvenile delinquents, teenager Michael Mottahedeh became a changemaker himself.

“I saw how it transformed the lives of at-risk youth, and that inspired me,” he said. “I hope to foster a society where we are not conducting studies to determine how many jails to build, but are rather implementing programs to see how many jobs we can create, and how many lives we can change.”

The Calabasas 18-year-old’s work with his high school’s chapter of Teen Court has made him one of two area students to receive the distinguished Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award this year — and the $36,000 that comes with it. Mottahedeh is joined by Laurielle Schwab of Running Springs, also 18, who co-founded a reading club that has engaged more than 1,000 elementary students since 2014. 

The award is given to 15 students nationally by the Helen Diller Family Foundation in San Francisco. It was established by Helen Diller, the family matriarch who died in 2015, with two main goals in mind, according to Adam Weisberg, director of the Diller Teen Initiatives. The first was to draw attention to teenagers changing or improving situations in their communities. The second was a hope to inspire other teenagers to increase “their chutzpah factor and launch outlandish ideas,” he said. 

Mottahedeh was rewarded for his work with his school’s chapter of Teen Court, a program run by the Los Angeles Superior Court. Instead of being tried by the traditional court system, minors suspected of crimes are tried by a court comprising their peers, who take on the roles of jurors, clerks and bailiffs. Sentences usually involve community service and counseling, and misdemeanors are taken off the juvenile’s record at the completion of the sentence. The program currently is operating in 24 schools in the area.

When Mottahedeh first attended a teen court session in ninth grade at Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills, it was a sparsely attended monthly program — fewer than 25 students would show up at any given session. But the program and its participants sparked a fire in him.

“Last summer, I went to a California Association of Youth Courts summit. We were living in dorms, and my roommate told me about how he’d once been a defendant for stealing something, and how the court helped him change his life around. He is now very involved with the court,” Mottahedeh said.

“My experiences at court allowed me to look at things objectively, and improve myself each and every day.” 

Through fundraisers, chapter meetings, social media efforts and field trips, Mottahedeh worked to spread the word about the court and increase student involvement in the Taft chapter. Over four years, the school’s chapter saw an increased average attendance of 140 students per court session, and Mottahedeh became the court’s president. 

Schwab took a different route to change the world around her. A reader at heart, she was concerned by the lack of interest in reading and discussing literature shown by her fellow Advanced Placement (AP) English classmates. She decided to address the issue by tackling it with younger students and encouraging a love for reading at the elementary school level. 

In particular, she was inspired by a program at her own elementary school called Racoon Reading. The tutoring program paired sixth-graders with second- and third-graders. However, when Schwab was in second grade, the program was discontinued due to budget cuts. 

Fast forward to Schwab’s AP class at Rim of the World High School when she realized the need for a reading program. With three friends, Schwab started the Rim High Literature Club with a specific goal in mind. 

“If I re-created a program inspired by Raccoon Reading, then maybe by the time those little kids grew up and were in my shoes, they wouldn’t need to be motivated to enjoy reading; it would come naturally,” Schwab said.

Now, at 8:15 a.m. on the first Thursday of every month, high school volunteers sit with elementary school children to work on their reading and vocabulary. So far, it has helped pupils in three schools with the assistance of more than 50 volunteers. Schwab said one child who had been in the program sent a note saying how his reading scores went up; another sent jars of cookies as a thank-you.

The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award was first given in 2007 to five teenagers based in California. Now the award is given to 15 teens: five to Californians and 10 nationally. 

For Schwab, the award means no longer having to worry as much about financing her education at Arizona State University, where she will be studying art through the honors college. 

“I was in the kitchen when I got the call telling me I had won, and I started crying,” she said. “I couldn’t hold myself up and just fell to the kitchen floor.”

Mottahedeh wasn’t near the phone when the news came; he called back and was shocked when he was told he had received the award. But shock soon gave way to pride toward his accomplishments — and the comfort of knowing the prize money will help him pay for tuition at UC Berkeley. ”