When someone in a family is ill, the whole family needs help, social worker Andy Lauber says.
Mr. Lauber is the director of the i-Shine program, a project of Chai Lifeline. He helped create the program in Long Island’s Five Towns in 2007, when he was a social work intern at Chai Lifeline. “Illness affects everyone in the family,” he said. “We need to provide services to everyone.” This commitment — and the help of Lauber’s Five-Towns model — has spurred the creation of similar programs throughout the country, including in Teaneck.
The afterschool program, which provides homework help, snacks, dinner, and activities for Jewish children dealing with serious illness or loss in the family, is “created by and for the community,” Mr. Lauber said. “It’s almost like a franchise. “Every region is different. For example, some programs are coed and some are not. It’s tweaked to fit the needs of each community.” Still, he said, the basic needs are the same, and so are the benefits.
Each program is run by volunteers, who, Mr. Lauber said, gain as much from their participation as they contribute. Elementary and middle school children are provided with free transportation from local schools to a central location that hosts the activities. In the Five Towns, the host facility is the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway. In Teaneck, it’s Yeshivat Noam. Parents, teachers, high school volunteers, social workers, and psychologists provide onsite supervision.
“Our staff members are experts in bringing out smiles and laughter while offering homework assistance and exciting recreational activities for children of all ages,” Mr. Lauber said. Volunteers are so involved with the students that “even staff who get married still keep up with the kids.”
The organization is now working with about 500 children; it has helped thousands of families since it first was created. While the home base for activities generally is a yeshiva, the program is not just for Orthodox children, Mr. Lauber said, noting that some of the students he serves come from public schools.
The challenge, he said, is to be able to organize carpools for those who request services. In the Five Towns, it’s not difficult, because most schools are within 10 to 15 minutes of each other, he said — but in Teaneck it’s more complicated.
The Five Towns group was founded by several women, including Annette Kaufman and Stacey Zrihen, who recognized the need for such a program and approached Chai Lifeline with the idea. “They saw that in some families dealing with illness, the ‘well’ child was being neglected and looking for attention,” he said. “They couldn’t provide for their needs, so they asked us to figure out something here. We were able to form this program.”
Activities may be sports-related, focus on arts and crafts projects or holidays, or they may center on a particular child’s birthday or b’nai mitzvah celebration. “We’re in constant contact with families,” Mr. Lauber said. “We intervene when necessary or assist in finding outside programs. We have a social worker at each program to monitor the kids’ behavior. We’re always looking for volunteers, drivers, and people to get involved.”
Teaneck volunteer Michal Zahtz, who helped create the local i-Shine project together with Deena Kaszovitz and Gila Weinstein, said she heard about the Five Towns program from a friend. “We tried to pitch the idea here for a year,” she said. “Women from the Five Towns came to explain how it worked.” Finding people to help run the program locally — Rachelle Margulies and Michele Bardash volunteered to supervise the driving — the organizers decided to move ahead. Now, Ms. Zahtz, Ms. Weinstein, and Faigy Ort coordinate the program.
“We heard how successful it is in the Five Towns and we wanted to bring it here,” Ms. Zahtz said. “A girl from the community, Ilana Schwartz, had passed away, and her parents decided to dedicate the program. We named it after her, in her memory.”
The volunteer-run program was based on the Five Towns model but had to be “tweaked to fit Teaneck,” Ms. Zahtz said. “It’s open to kids from Teaneck, Englewood, and as far as Tenafly, New Milford, and Fair Lawn, as long as they can get a ride back home.” Like the Five Towns program, “it’s for any Jewish child from kindergarten to eighth grade who is affected by illness in their lives.” This generally means children whose parent or sibling have died or are undergoing medical treatment. The children in the program must be healthy.
The Teaneck program, now in its fourth year, “got lucky, with wonderful women in the community,” Ms. Zahtz said. Among other things, their responsibilities include “driving multiple carpools, picking up children from every local school, both early and late.” Since its inception, the program has served some 20 families, with 50 children. This year’s group includes 30 youngsters.
Ms. Zahtz said that about 15 women drive on any given i-Shine day — Mondays and Wednesdays. “Our main success is because of our high school volunteers,” she said. “They are the fun, the spirit. We have really wonderful girls from Ma’ayanot and boys come from MTA. Others come from Frisch. All the volunteers are seniors.” She paid special tribute to Yeshivat Noam, which hosts the students. “They so graciously offered us use of the facility,” she said. “They’re so wonderful, so accommodating.”
In addition, “there are Noam teachers who stay after school to help us out,” she said. “Many different people come and donate time to do activities.” This helps to keep costs down. While the group does some fundraising, “We do have tremendous costs,” providing both snacks and dinner at each i-Shine session.
In addition to regular activities, Ms. Zahtz said, “for a special occasion, sometimes we do something more elaborate. “ For example, the group has had bar and bat mitzvah celebrations for some of its members. “We go all out with decorations.
“The kids are so happy to come. They come with smiles. Even new children, who are sometimes anxious to attend for the first time, always leave eager to come back again.”
Ms. Zahtz said i-Shine Teaneck will continue “as long as there’s a need. It’s such a privilege and a tremendous opportunity to work with the program, to be able to be involved and help out with such an important need.” Since the organization has no formal staff, “whatever happens is what volunteers do.” Still, she said, “Everything is working out great,” crediting the high-schoolers with much of the program’s success. “They come week in and week out, playing ball, doing homework, doing manicures, and bringing smiles to the children’s faces.”
Local businesses have been accommodating as well.
“For every birthday, Butterflake donates a beautiful birthday cake, and different local restaurants give us a discount or donate food to us,” Ms. Zahtz said. “The community really helps out. Cedar Market gives us fresh fruit and vegetables for healthy snacks, and Glatt Express has given us sushi and snacks.
“Hopefully, we’re helping by giving parents a break and the kids a time to shine and enjoy and develop bonds. Our program really gives a sense of security and stability going through rough times.”
Volunteers often are in touch with teachers and support staff at a child’s school if any one child has any specific need. For example, she said, “We will talk to teachers about homework and about any issues we need to know so we can find the best way to help the kids. We love them so much, we want them to have fun.”
Still, she said, “I keep hoping that we won’t have enough kids to run the program. I’d love to have to close down, but as long as there’s a need, we will try our hardest to be there for everybody.”
For more information about i-Shine Teaneck, go to www.chailifeline.org/events/ishine-teaneck.