By Sophia Ricco
In an effort to save the planet while helping an organization that is close to her heart, Janna Zilkha started Bottles for Buddies six years ago.
The Half Hollow Hills High School East senior has redeemed over 60,000 bottles since she began, collecting more than $3,000 to donate to the New York Friendship Circle (FCNY), a program that aids special needs children by putting them in groups and pairing them up with teens who participate in fun activities with them.
Zilkha has a personal connection to the organization through her cousin, Roi, who has special needs and moved in with her family in 2011, after natural disasters hit his home in Japan. That’s when they learned about FCNY from their synagogue, the ChaiCenter in Dix Hills.
“We went to the Friendship Circle and they were so good for him and for our family,” Zilkha said. “I learned a lot through the Friendship Circle about kids with special needs.”
The group has little funding aside from donations and after Zilkha’s experience with them, she wanted to help. In elementary school, Zilkha participated in a club called “Earth Savers” that went to classrooms, collecting recyclables and redeeming the bottles. The club would use the money to plant a garden at the school, but was discontinued when she went to middle school. This is when Zilkha decided to continue this work herself and donate to FCNY.
In her six years of running the program, Zilkha has been able to sponsor a program of her own, “A Teen Scene”, along with others. Last year, she invited friends who were in her music classes to play and sing for the kids and have them guess the song.
“With my donations, their program has been able to grow more and have better experiences for the kids,” Zilkha said. “It’s amazing to see how much it’s grown in the last six years.”
Her donations have also impacted FCNY by helping to fund the pay of those who help run the program. With the small amount funding the group has, it means a lot.
“The ultimate goal is to raise enough money so that most of the programs are free,” Zilkha said. “It’s a very long journey to get there, but it’s definitely improved since I started this program.”
Zilkha accepts bottle donations throughout the year, with many friends and family keeping an eye out for recyclables to bring to her. She also stays after football games to pick up discarded bottles. Anyone who has bottles to donate can get in touch with Zilkha through the Bottles for Buddies Facebook page to organize a drop off.
“My program would be nothing if it weren’t for the community,” Zilkha said. “In my own home we don’t use as much plastic as other families, we try not to use plastic water bottles or anything of that kind so if it were just my family we wouldn’t have much at all.”
Another way Zilkha is hoping to increase her returns is by partnering with the Girl Scouts of Suffolk County who will aid her in collecting bottles in the near future.
“Once it’s up and running it will make a huge impact and grow my program even more,” Zilkha said.
Zilkha is hoping to top her previous years collections with a goal of redeeming 35,000 bottles. Last year, she had a goal of 20,000 and collected over 31,000.
“Whether it’s actually going to me and the Friendship Circle, although I really would appreciate the donations to the Friendship Circle, one big part about this program to me, is educating people about recycling and how it helps the environment,” Zilkha said.
The Bottles for Buddies Facebook page is filled with posts, articles and videos about the benefits of recycling. Zilkha has also spoken about her recycling program to groups as a way to further educate people.
“It’s more than just them bringing me bottles, it’s them knowing about recycling and the detriments of plastic,” Zilkha said. “Some people have been bringing us less, because they’ve been using less plastic which of course is amazing.”
As a senior in high school, Zilkha is hoping to go away for college but does not want her program to stop in her absence.
“Right now, I am trying to find people who are going to be willing to take up my program and make it their own so the Friendship Circle can continue getting the funding,” Zilkha said.
Zilkha hopes a Girl Scout troop will be willing to carry on her program and accept the responsibility of redeeming the bottles.
“What people don’t realize is that it’s actually a lot of work,” Zilkha said. “It’s not just collecting, you need to have the time to take thousands of bottles to a supermarket and put in each bottle individually.”