At age 13, Zak Kukoff of Thousand Oaks, Calif., would watch his autistic younger cousin sit alone on the playground. “It’s not that students didn’t want to be her friend — they just didn’t know how,” he said. “It hurt me to see.”
Four years later, Kukoff is the founder of Autism Ambassadors, a national nonprofit that teaches students how to interact with their autistic peers. He is also one of the five 2012 recipients of the San Francisco-based Helen Diller Family Foundation’s Teen Tikkun Olam Award, a project that has allocated over $1 million to 30 teens over the past six years.
Previously limited to California teens, the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards are now going national. This year, up to 10 teens will be selected, five from California and five from around the country. Winners will be awarded $36,000 each, to be used to further their philanthropic work or their education.
“Mrs. Helen Diller, the visionary behind this project, wanted to bring the work teens are doing to the attention of an ever broader audience,” said Rachel Bloom, the awards program manager. “In this way, other teens can see what’s possible and be inspired to test the limits.”
Judges are community lay leaders with backgrounds in community and philanthropic work, along with the occasional previous award winner, such as 2010 winner Kyle Weiss, joining the panel. Weiss started FundaField, a student-run nonprofit providing children in developing countries with soccer fields, soccer equipment and soccer tournaments, utilizing the therapeutic power of sports to precipitate recovery in post-trauma regions.
Teens, who must be U.S. residents age 13 to 19, can be nominated by anyone except a family member. Last year, 142 nominations were received.
The awards are funded entirely by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which has given more than $200 million in total to a variety of programs and institutions in California’s Bay Area, including the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation. However, the Diller Foundation has called on Jewish Federation of North American (JFNA), to help publicize and promote news of its national expansion. “JFNA is dedicated to helping support the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam awards, which elevate and highlight incredible acts of tzedakah by so many incredible Jewish teens,” said Joe Berkofsky, managing director of communications at JFNA.
“For me, the most important part of receiving the Tikkun Olam award was the emotional validation it provided,” said Kukoff. “Even more than the financial element, the knowledge that there is a whole group of people supporting Autism Ambassadors, rooting for this project — from the incredible group of alumni to Mrs. Helen Diller herself — gives me the drive and inspiration to keep going.”
With the money from the Tikkun Olam Award, Autism Ambassadors has hired a professional staff to help with the website and hired a team of translators to help make the curriculum “available to as many people as possible.”
Today, Kukoff’s autistic cousin sits in a classroom with her peers. Her academic and social skills have developed to such an extent that “her diagnosis is barely visible anymore,” said Kukoff. “You start with one person, one idea, one vision. Then it grows. The Diller Tikkun Olam Award acts as an accelerant.”
For more information on this year’s Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.jewishfed.org/teenawards/process. Deadline for nominations is Jan. 6.