18-year-old Zach Yusaf and his younger sister, 16-year-old Zara, both started debate as middle school students, and the two learned how to apply beneficial skills from that training across all aspects of life, from public speaking to researching.
The Chappaqua, New York siblings launched Pass The Gavel in 2018 to advance critical thinking and analysis and promote civil discourse for students. Offering free debate programs including summer camps and crash courses in debate, Zach and Zara even launched a YouTube page during the COVID-19 pandemic to make sure their training could be accessed remotely by underserved students, and have since “passed the gavel” to hundreds of students across the United States through volunteerism.
What inspires you to volunteer?
Zara: We’ve debated for so long because of all the support we received along the way. If we can be that support or mentor to an aspiring debater, we’d love to help fuel that mission. We’ve grown up in a community that experienced a lot of privilege and we’re so thankful for the opportunities we’ve been given, but we realize not everyone has had the same opportunities. We’re volunteering to help close that divide in any way we can.
Describe your volunteerism with PTG.
Zach: As co-founders, we’re in charge of setting up free tournaments and camp sessions for under-resourced communities, organizing debate donation drives and gathering information and educational materials to make sure we are teaching kids the best possible information. We fundraise to help support debate programs and coordinate with schools and libraries to send donations including program materials, school supplies and more. For example, we sent financial support to a Texas school that needed video and lighting equipment for their debate program, and have also connected with one school in Africa. We’ve raised thousands of dollars thus far, and have even held clothing drives for debaters in need.
Share one personal story with me from your volunteerism.
Zara: I volunteered as a judge at a debate tournament, and a parent there mentioned a lot of the teachers that taught [debate] had never learned debate themselves, so they couldn’t give the feedback students were craving. The parent told me the feedback I’d given to a student was so helpful and in-depth, and we helped the students grow as debaters. I was in 8th grade when this happened, and I didn’t realize the impact I could have on students my age. We’ve become a community and that community has allowed us to foster relationships to further the education and research that come along with debate.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
Zach: As a community, it’s very important that we support each other. It’s important to bridge a lot of gaps we have in society whether racial, gender or socioeconomic. Volunteering helps to create a better life for ourselves and a better life for others as well.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your service?
Zach: We were running a PTG tournament at the Katonah, New York library, and a parent told me how proud she was that her kids were doing the debate tournament at the end of camp. Her kids were so excited about doing debate, and she was so excited, they petitioned to get debate at their own school. That moment made me realize the power my service can have, and made me feel really good.
How have you continued to volunteer throughout the pandemic?
Zara: The pandemic impacted many communities differently. Debate instruction was essentially canceled during the pandemic, so we created a YouTube page offering instructional debate videos and have also hosted online classes and skills seminars to connect with students nationwide.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Zach: Find a thing you’re passionate about, whether it’s debate like us, movie making or soccer, and try to do something with that besides helping yourself. Try to help people that aren’t able to access that passion in the same way you are and go from there, just like we’ve done with PTG.
In one word, what does volunteering mean to you?
When you’re not busy with school or volunteering, what do you do for fun?
Zara: I run cross country and track for my school.
Zach: I like making movies, I like working out and I also love reading comic books like Marvel [and] DC. I’m the biggest comic book nerd that ever existed.
How can readers help?
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Zach and Zara Yusaf? Find local volunteer opportunities.