Giving with joy: Matriarch conveys spirit of philanthropy

Phyllis Maizlish, center, with her grandchildren, their spouses and friends (Courtesy Homer Davis Elementary School)

Creating a legacy for future generations of compassionate community volunteers is an important part of being a member of the Maizlish family, which so far encompasses three generations in Tucson.

Phyllis Maizlish started the Maizlish Family Foundation because she wanted to help others and inspire her family. “My husband Irvin, who passed away in 1997, made this happen because he was a successful real estate developer who was always involved with the community and charitable causes,” she says.

As they were growing up, Maizlish talked to her grandchildren about their grandfather. “I talked to them about my life with him and how he made it possible for them to be able to have the money to participate in giving to others,” she explains. “I wanted to inspire, not only my children, but my grandchildren as well.” There are now 16 members of the third generation (12 grandchildren plus four spouses) who work together on choosing charitable projects. The Foundation gives each of them a certain amount of money and each year they can choose their own projects along with being part of a joint project. Maizlish is proud of her children, Jody Gross, Leslie Glaze, Shelly Silverman and Scott Maizlish, who are all are involved with helping others, and pleased with the way that her children have directed their own children with the charitable projects.

Sam Silverman, 23, son of Shelly and Steve Silverman, was in the sixth grade when his parents enrolled him in a Tucson chapter of B’nai Tzedek, a philanthropy group for teenagers.  “All of our parents [including his aunts and uncles] have done a good job instilling these values and enabling our generation to learn at a young age that we can go far in helping others,” says Silverman.

Interests vary widely for the cousins’ personal projects. Silverman, a graduate of the University of Alabama, made the University of Alabama Hillel his personal project this year. “I was active on campus, and I was appreciative for all that Hillel did for me, including Shabbat dinners, High Holiday services and Passover seders,” he says. Other personal projects for the cousins include a riding camp for children with terminal illnesses, cancer research and the Humane Society. There is an annual meeting of the cousins to discuss the joint project.

This year the cousins decided to give their group donation to the Homer Davis Project. Since 2009 the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona has been overseeing volunteers and donations to help children at Homer Davis Elementary School, where 85 to 90 percent of the children meet poverty guidelines for free breakfast and lunch. The school identified about 65 children who are most at risk and receive little or no nutritious food during weekends, school holidays or the six-week summer school session. Along with weekend food packs for children at the highest risk, the project provides daily snacks for all kindergarten students, and has provided art supplies, about 500 books, and other instructional items not covered by the district’s budget. Volunteers for the project include a full-time counselor, tutors and coaches.

Mary Ellen Loebl, JFSA coordinator for the Homer Davis Project, explained that the Federation buys food for the food packs, which include both canned goods and fresh produce, from the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Loebl says donations can be made to the Homer Davis Project by going to the Flowing Wells School District website and donating through the Arizona School Tax Credit, or by sending money directly to JFSA, designating it for the Homer Davis Project.

Maizlish says her son-in-law, Steve Silverman, got the family involved with the Homer Davis Project. Steve volunteers to pick up the food for the school at the food bank and also serves as a tutor. The cousins’ decision to give to this project resulted in a donation of 20 new laptop computers and 24 kettle drums for a special program.

“Our family took a tour of the school,” Maizlish says. “This was very important, especially for our younger generation to see the results of their giving.  A lot of these students do not have computers at home, and I believe it is vital for their future to learn how to use computers.”

Jody Gross notes that the kettle drums are for kids that are not in the school band. “The teachers and staff at the school are super excited about this drum program since it has been successful at other schools,” she said. “It provides something fun for the kids.

“It is sweet how different things touch the kids at different times in their lives, and this leads to their wanting to help a specific group or organization,” says Gross. “My mother is an incredible matriarch. She takes a leadership role in the family and helps local and international organizations. It is a joy to be part of this family.”

Lauren Maizlish, 15, daughter of Scott and Angie Maizlish, says she became involved with the family projects at age 12, when her parents and grandmother “figured I was old enough to understand what they were teaching me.”

“I got to go to the Homer Davis school with the family, and it was cool to see what our money is doing for others,” she says. “We are a lucky family to be able to share with other people.”

Silverman talks with pride about his father, Steve, and his volunteer work for the Homer Davis Project, and is glad that he is now part of this endeavor.  “It was incredible to go to the Homer Davis school and see where the money goes and to hear the people from the school and Stuart Mellan talk about what we are doing,” he said.

Stuart Mellan, JFSA president and CEO, says he first met Shelly Silverman, who just finished a year as chair of the JFSA annual campaign, about 10 years ago, soon after she moved to Tucson and dived into involvement with the Jewish community. Through Shelly he met Phyllis and other members of the family. “I gained an understanding that this family has a deep commitment to helping people who are hurting and cannot help themselves,” says Mellan. “I was privileged to greet the family at the Homer Davis school when they made the formal presentation of their donations.  It was inspiring to see this generation to generation engaged in tikkun olam (repair of the world) within the Jewish community and within the larger community.”

“As a family we can perpetuate this giving from generation to generation,” says Maizlish. “I am interested in sparking other people to do this with their grandchildren.”

And with a great-grandchild on the way, she is looking forward to a new generation of giving.

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson. Contact her at dancingunicornpress@gmail.com.