For Katie Hamelburg, volunteering is a way of life — and she’s doing what she can to inspire other teens to offer their time and talent to help others, too.
Hamelburg, 19, of Potomac created Operation 18,000, letting members of United Synagogue Youth track their volunteer hours through the online program in hopes that together they could accumulate 18,000 hours of service from March to December 2013.
The program exceeded her expectations, as 600 teens nationwide volunteered 32,686 hours. For her own work, Hamelburg earned one of 15 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards for 2014 from the Diller Family Foundation, a philanthropy in San Francisco.
With the award came $36,000.
“I was really surprised to win,” Hamelburg said.
She said she plans to use some of her winnings for college tuition. She is a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park, majoring in Jewish studies. She also plans to give some to a social justice fund through United Synagogue Youth.
Hamelburg said she got the idea for Operation 18,000 in part after watching a video in which first lady Michelle Obama urged young people to spend time giving back to their communities.
“Watching that video got my wheels turning,” she said. “And [I decided] to go and challenge my own peers.”
She named her challenge Operation 18,000 because she wanted to create a number for teens to aim for and because the number 18 is significant in Judaism, she said.
“Eighteen signifies life,” she said. “This [program] is not just about the act of volunteering, but about making a difference in the life of your community.”
Hamelburg spent time volunteering in Montgomery County and in Israel, working there at Kfar Hasidim, a youth village, for three weeks in April 2013, while she was a student at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. She is a 2013 graduate of that school and a member of Shaare Torah Congregation in Gaithersburg.
“This project really inspired me,” she said. “By watching my peers make a difference, watching the goal of 18,000 and we actually got to 32,686 hours. It inspired me to want to continue to work for social justice.”
Hamelburg will be honored along with other award winners at a conference Aug. 23-25 in San Francisco.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting with the other winners and learning from them,” she said.
Hamelburg said her work continues with a new name — Operation 54,000, to reflect a greater challenge she believes will be reached. She is not heading Operation 54,000, but has been actively mentoring two young people, from Wisconsin and Missouri, who have accepted the leadership role.