Special needs and the Jewish community

Special needs and the Jewish community

Where every child belongs

Chani Herrman, director of New Jersey Yachad, pointed out that volunteers – dubbed “advisers” by the Orthodox Union-sponsored organization – are not the same people as those who simply attend Yachad events as participants.

The organization, whose mission is one of inclusion, sponsors events for three groups – targeting those of junior high school, senior high school, and college age. Activities are geared to both special needs and mainstream individuals of the appropriate age cohort.

Advisers, on the other hand – there are about 100 in the New Jersey region, many from this area – are not there simply to mingle. They are generally older, including college students, graduate students, and professionals in the field.

Tova Stern from Passaic shares a moment with Neti Linzer, a seventh- grader at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey.

The difference between mainstream participants and advisers, said Herrman, is that the latter are responsible for the needs of a particular special needs individual.

“They care for particular children,” she said. “The children may need help going to the bathroom, or an older volunteer may work with them to form a behavioral plan.”

A major role of the adviser, however, is to “facilitate meaningful inclusion,” ensuring that special needs and mainstream guests interact and “have conversations together.”

Yachad does not recruit its volunteers, said Herrman.

Advisers, of both sexes, “may have a sibling with special needs, or may have come to a Yachad event through school and were moved by the experience. They may have connected with a specific individual and ask how they can follow up or participate in other events.”

“They reach out afterwards,” she said. “They find us, whether through schools,” where the group sponsors events such as Shabbatons, “or by word of mouth.” Advisers attend multiple training sessions throughout the year.

Those who serve in this capacity must be “extremely caring,” she said, “somebody who is able to make a commitment.” The best volunteers, she said, come on an ongoing basis.

They must also believe “that every child belongs. If you have that in your heart, you’ll make a good volunteer,” she said.

“Many of them come and say, ‘I’m here to give,’ but they end up walking away with so much more. As much as they are giving, they are also receiving.”

In addition, advisers do not have to have any prior experience with special needs individuals, said Herrman. “They just have to be willing to come and have fun.”

“At Yachad events, everyone is a participant and everyone has something to contribute,” said Herrman. “In fact, as our participants get older, we encourage them to go out into their communities and volunteer. It’s important for them to give back to their own communities in a meaningful way. For some, it can be packaging meals for the needy or visiting the sick. We believe that individuals with special needs can make the best volunteers: They are sensitive, caring, eager to do a good job, and willing to make a commitment.”

While sponsored by the OU, Yachad, founded in 1983, serves the entire community, and its volunteers come from all denominations, Stern said. For further information, e-mail the New Jersey director at herrmann@ou.org.

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