SUNY New Paltz’s Jaklin Levine-Pritzker is a contract major in social change

Jaklin Levine-Pritzker at an internally displaced persons camp in Kenya. (photo provided)

Jaklin Levine-Pritzker at an internally displaced persons camp in Kenya. (photo provided)

At age 14, most teenagers are focused on the issues in their own lives — overprotective parents, adjusting to high school and problems with their first love. However, Jaklin Levine-Pritzker saw the bigger picture — the effects of injustice and poverty.

“The first time I knew I had to be involved with humanitarian work was during a 30-hour famine,” she said. “I was shown a video about the conflict in Darfur and it hit me harder than anything ever has.”

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After attending an awareness event at her best friend’s church, Levine-Pritzker enlisted for the two-day fast in order to better comprehend what it means to go hungry. What she experienced was life changing.

“I never really understood the mental effects hunger can have on someone,” she explained. “I got really upset and grumpy and couldn’t focus. Then I felt guilty, because I was only experiencing one ten-thousandth of what most of the world does.”

Moved to action, Levine-Pritzker started a club at her high school, Hartford Central School, to raise awareness about Darfur, hunger and poverty. The club, called One Heartbeat, held several meetings, but struggled to take off. Nevertheless, the gathering sparked the future humanitarian’s interest in global activism.

Even before the famine, Levine-Pritzker, now 21, was well-aware of social justice and human rights. Her mother, Marna, was a social worker and an active participant in both protests and non-profits. She was particularly interested in working to get troubled youth alternate sentences for drugs and various offenses. With her help, these individuals were able to participate in therapy and community service programs instead of receiving jail time.

Her father, Stan, fought injustices through the law, serving as a judge in Washington County. Both of their experiences were invaluable to Levine-Pritzker.

In 2010, she decided to follow in their footsteps. After researching affordable volunteer programs, Levine-Pritzker, then 19, trekked to Kenya through International Volunteer HQ. For a month and a half, she lived with a host family in rural Naivasha and volunteered five days a week at a school for street children.

“It was hardly a school,” she recalls. “It was a tiny run-down building with three classrooms. They were all so excited to have me there. “

During her time in Kenya, Levine-Pritzker grew close to the school children.

“All the kids run up to you and say ‘mzungu!’ which means ‘white person.’ It’s meant as a matter-of-fact saying and not derogatory,” she explains. “Most of them haven’t seen white people, so we’re a mystery to them. Instead of being scared, they run up and give you the biggest hug you’ll ever get.”

Of all her experiences, however, one of her most rewarding feats was connecting with a 12-year-old girl named Elizabeth.

“She got kicked out of the government school for prostitution and causing trouble,” said Levine-Pritzker. “She hated me at first and was so difficult to deal with. The day I left, she cried and gave me a huge hug. I love and miss her. I hope she’s doing okay.”

On the weekends, Levine-Pritzker volunteered at the surrounding slums, which both inspired and disturbed her.