By Cindy Mindell
WOODBRIDGE – It’s been 27 years since 30-something Laura Schroff offered to buy lunch for 11-year-old panhandler Maurice Mazyck on 56th Street in Manhattan.
The resulting friendship is chronicled in An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny (Howard Books, 2011), co-written by Schroff and Alex Tresniowski. The title of the book that became an instant New York Times bestseller is drawn from a Chinese proverb: “An invisible thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, and circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle. But it will never break.”
Earlier this year, Schroff met another 11-year-old, Avital Sutin, when the sixth grader at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge emailed a request for an interview. Sutin and her classmates had read The Miracle Worker and were now on the hunt for modern-day miracle workers, or “Mitzvah Heroes,” to write about. Sutin’s mother, Rachel, had learned about An Invisible Thread from co-workers and read the book with her daughter. Its central message – how a simple act of kindness can change another person’s life – resonated with the sixth grader.
“Laura brought a completely different lifestyle to Maurice; she taught him how to live a good, normal life, and that inspired me to contact her,” Sutin says. “The first time they met, and she took him to McDonalds and started to realize that his living conditions were bad, so she started to take care of him and teach him.”
And in return, “I think Maurice taught Laura that not everything is easy and you really have to learn things and try your hardest to adapt,” Sutin says.
In her email reply, Schroff suggested a phone interview. “I was nervous because I had never done an interview before but Laura seemed very friendly and I knew that it would turn out well,” Sutin says.
“Avital talked about her school and explained her class project, and how she had chosen me as her ‘mitzvah hero,’” says Schroff, who was so moved that she offered to attend the class presentation.
“I was blown away,” says the author, who is not Jewish. “I’ve been to a couple of bar and bat mitzvahs, and am fascinated by the beautiful way Jewish teens come into their faith. But as soon as I got off the phone, I Googled ‘mitzvah.’”
On May 1, the author and the student met at Ezra, when Sutin and her 17 fellow sixth graders presented their Mitzvah Hero projects. Each read an essay, accompanied by a visual display. Sutin created a 3D model of her favorite parts of the book – a plate of chocolate-chip cookies on a dining-room table.
“I thought of all the physical things Laura taught Maurice and I wanted to combine them,” Sutin says. “She taught him what a table is and how to eat at a table, how to eat with silverware, and how to bake cookies.” A display board provided a backdrop to the table, with Sutin and Schroff’s interview, Sutin’s essay, photos from the book, and information about the national No Kid Hungry campaign that Schroff supports. Schroff posted Sutin’s project on her website.
“I was very honored for Laura to come and hear me read my speech and see my project,” Sutin says.
Of all the speaking engagements and school visits resulting from her book, “that experience was by far, hands down, my favorite,” Schroff says. Head of School Melanie Waynik invited the author to return to Ezra on May 21 to meet with the entire middle school. She agreed, on the condition that Sutin introduce her to the audience.
Many of Sutin’s classmates have since bought and read An Invisible Thread. “We’re all trying to look out for ways to do good deeds,” Sutin says. “The book opened our eyes and we try to look for things we can do in public areas, like when we see a family who needs something. I was out with my parents to buy groceries and there was a man outside the store with a sign that said he had lost his job and needed diapers and food and milk for his family. We bought and delivered those things to him and it felt really good to see his smile.”
Sutin has shifted her focus to the Relay for Life fundraiser in May 2014, a month after her bat mitzvah. She is raising money for the American Cancer Society in memory of her Uncle Naftali, who died of melanoma before she was born and after whom she is named.
“I always thought that, to make a difference in the world, it would have to be big or public,” she says. “But now I know that it can be very small.”
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