By Ellen Fix
It’s hard not to be swept away with the excitement and flurry of last-minute preparations for Amy’s Party.
“I need four people to help me get 40 pizzas out of someone’s car and into the kitchen.” Immediately, four youthful volunteers, wearing special Amy’s Party t-shirts and donning red Santa caps, rush to assist Carly Blaiss, one of Amy’s friends.
Other volunteers are cutting pieces of cakes and putting them on paper plates, filling bowls with snacks, arranging gifts by age group in the ‘toy store, checking the decorations, dressing up as Santa’s elves and stationing themselves at arts and crafts and game tables.
Soon, the guests would arrive at the Weber Jewish Community High School on Roswell Road in Sandy Springs – nearly 500 children from 25 metro Atlanta shelters and two foster care systems. That was Sunday, Dec. 9, a memorable day for the children and the volunteers.
It’s obvious this was to be no ordinary Christmas party. And Amy Sacks Zeide, who founded the annual holiday event 13 years ago when she was 13, is no ordinary person.
You might say Amy, a Sandy Springs native who still lives in the area with husband Aaron, has an innate sense of social justice. And it was nurtured by a family that integrated giving back to the community as part of her upbringing.
Amy’s father, Dr. Harvey Sacks, is a cardiologist. Every Christmas, Amy and brother Jeff took their piggy bank money to buy gifts for kids at Grady Hospital. While a student at The Lovett School, she was president of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. And her religious training taught her the lessons of tzedakah (Hebrew for “righteousness”) and tikkun olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”). But it was her passion, rather the lessons, that fueled her involvement in community activities. The turning point came for Amy at the tender age of 12.
Says Amy, “I saw a news report about a local Atlanta shelter that was having holiday party for their residents, and the night before their presents were stolen. I was heartbroken and couldn’t understand it. That year I gathered about 10 of my friends and asked them to donate their allowance money. So we bought toys and delivered them to the shelter to replenish what they had lost. Then I told my mother [Jacquie Sacks] I wanted to make sure this kind of thing never happens again.”
Fortunately for a lot of needy children, the next year was Amy’s Bat Mitzvah, when Jewish children celebrate their religious coming-of-age at 13.
Rather than keep the entire onslaught of monetary gifts bestowed on her for the occasion, she put a portion of it in the bank and used the remaining amount – her allotted $400 of personal spending money – to throw a holiday party for the Genesis Shelter, then adjacent to Jewish Family and Career Services on Peachtree Street. The timing was ideal, too; her Bat Mitzvah fell in October so she had a couple of months to plan the event. Thus Amy’s Party was born.
“It kind of snowballed,” she explains. “I had no idea it would turn into a community-wide event. It grew every year and we invited more shelters to participate, raised more money and people became really interested. I have friends who have been at every party with me; but now there are so many participants, they are surprised to find out there really is an ‘Amy’.” This year’s event drew more than 300 volunteers, with some 80 more expected as ‘walk-ups’.
Amy’s Party eventually expanded to fill the Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s basement, on Northside Drive and Peachtree Battle Avenue. This allowed as many as 500 children with their parents and foster parents to enjoy the festivities. Having outgrown that space, The Doris and Alex Weber Jewish Community High School on Roswell Road just north of Abernathy Road, now hosts the event.
Amy is quick to acknowledge that, in addition to putting smiles on the faces of kids less fortunate and bringing joy to their lives, a key motivation for the continuity of Amy’s Party is the opportunity to give teens a chance to join in community service. And Dr. Sacks notes that the teens have truly “taken ownership” of the Party.
Notwithstanding this fact, one of Dr. Sacks’ adult patients suits up as Santa Claus.
Says Amy, “By the time I went off to college, it was still being run by me and my family; and the mission for me was getting young people involved in doing things for others. Truly, five adults could probably pull this thing together in a week. So when JATCO (Jewish Atlanta Teen Community Outreach, a division of the Center for Jewish education and Experiences) was looking for citywide projects to involve Jewish teens, it was the perfect match.” Although JATCO no longer exists, its focus as a hub for Jewish teen interaction has been transmuted into a new organization, Tribe Three-Sixty. Tribe Three-Sixty now coordinates 300+ teen volunteers – primarily from the Sandy Springs area, according to Amy – to arrange every aspect of Amy’s Party.
This includes an on-site DJ, food, toy donations, carnival games, photos with Santa Claus, bus transportation for shelter residents, subsidized MARTA rates and a shuttle operating to and from the Dunwoody MARTA station. The estimated cost of the event would be close to $40,000 without donations from many local businesses. And donations are vital. For instance, KB Toys Outlet in Dawsonville offered about 800 toys at a huge discount. Kosher cakes were courtesy of Buckhead Wedding Cakes, snacks were courtesy of Publix and Kroger and arts and crafts were donated by Binder’s.
“It’s all about seeing their faces, the smiles, the hugs, the joy these kids get. I had a parent who said this was her tenth year at the Party, who wanted me to meet her son who is ten years old. I was so honored and at the same moment I was heartbroken that she needed a party like this and was still in a system that wasn’t providing them with their needs.”
However, beneficiaries of the system do maintain hope that they will soon be self-sufficient. Cynthia Mitchell, who lives in a Sandy Springs apartment subsidized through the Mary Hall Freedom House, brought her teenage son Ameer to the Party. Ameer is a student at Sandy Springs Middle School. After fleeing the ravages of Katrina, Cynthia fell on hard times. Her car was totaled, the money ran out and she was dependent on part-time jobs. She looks forward to the day when she can make it on her own. And she’s planning to get there. An L.P.N., she will soon graduate from Excelsior College as an R.N. Interestingly, Cynthia had lived in Sandy Springs when she was younger.
Remarks Cynthia, “Sandy Springs is so centrally located. And there is so much love here for moms who have noone to turn to without outside assistance. In the next phase of my program, I’m going to get my own apartment. I thank God I’m here. We have a roof over our head in my favorite city!”
Recognizing the depth and breadth of the needs of those who struggle to make it on their own, Amy encourages teens to approach volunteerism as a passion rather than something you “have to do for a college application. Whether it’s the environment, homelessness, or animals, if you really enjoy it the sky’s the limit. You’re never too young to start, either. And it’s amazing to see these teens take Amy’s Party on as one of the most important activities of the school year. It humbles me.”
Amy is now working on a master’s degree in special education from Georgia State University.