LeadYoung Initiative: Sophie Levitt


Sophie Levitt | Photograph by Website Director Isaac Degenholtz

Sam Bisno and Isaac Degenholtz

We’re partnering with Ashoka and its LeadYoung initiative to syndicate the stories of teenagers and young adults from around the world who have identified real, systemic problems and taken it upon themselves to put into place solutions. Though our official five-week series has run its course, we’re excited to present a LeadYoung piece on one of Obama’s own: junior Sophie Levitt. Keep an eye on Ashoka’s LeadYoung page, where this will be republished.

Think you know a young changemaker who deserves to be featured not only on the Eagle, but on a nationwide platform? Reach out to Editor-in-Chief Sam Bisno at [email protected]

We hope that these stories inspire you to make a change of some sort, no matter on what scale. Thank you.

-The Eagle editorial team

As Sophie Levitt considered her Bat Mitzvah project five years ago, she struggled to settle on an issue she was particularly passionate about—until her cousin Marla came to mind. Marla, who is currently a sophomore in high school, has autism. “She’s my cousin, so it was really important for me to find a way to help her,” Sophie says.

Sophie has watched Marla have difficulty keeping up with her peers in a traditional classroom setting. “I knew that Marla found it hard to focus during lectures, but it was much easier for her if the lesson was right in front of her.” So she decided to give her an iPad—along with 17 entities serving kids on the spectrum around the world. Some of the tablets went to nearby charities, while others went as far as Israel. “I gave one to Marla, but I decided that rather than give the rest to individual kids, I wanted to send them to institutions where they can be shared,” she says. “I chose those places that I felt would best honor my mission.” 18 iPads, Sophie says, because 18 signifies life in Judaism.

For kids with autism, she says, tablets are not only useful education tools, with their various apps aimed at facilitating the needs of their users, but they can also offer a sort of escape from reality. Again, Sophie thinks of Marla: “Whenever she’s feeling overwhelmed, she can take her iPad and play a game to help her calm down.” Not only that, Sophie says, but they also help with socialization: “Marla sometimes has a hard time interacting with other people, but she might find it easier if she could bond with someone over, say, a cooking video.”

Sophie hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States; the city is one of the fastest-growing technology hubs in the country, but she feels that there is a lack of accessibility to devices for kids with learning impairments. It was this discrepancy that motivated her to continue her efforts long after her Bat Mitzvah. Now 16, she is the head of her newly founded organization, Electronics for Autism. She works closely with a small but dedicated team consisting of her dad; their lawyer; and her mentor, Sidney Kushner, who operates a local nonprofit called CCChampions that connects children recovering from cancer with their role models. Sophie says Sidney has been an inspiration for her as she’s navigated the obstacles involved with managing a startup. She also says that she’s looking for other youth partners to join her.

It hasn’t been easy. Sophie says very few foundations recognize the importance of her cause and are willing to provide funds for new tablets. She estimates that it costs $1,500 for one highs schooler with autism to own an iPad for four years, once the expenses of a case, maintenance, and necessary software are taken into account. She also found it frustrating to deal with all of paperwork associated with registering a 501(c)(3). “I just want to help the kids, and that really slowed me down.”

Sophie says that she’s finally made headway on the legal side of things, so her next goal is to secure new financial contributions so that she can resume distributing the tablets. “To see the kids’ faces after I hand them the iPads, that makes it worth it.”

Sophie believes that everyone has the potential to be a changemaker. “Tikkun olam is a Jewish concept that means to give, or to repair the world. No one can do that all on their own, but if we all do a little piece, any problem can be solved,” she says. “And we have to start young.”