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Volunteer victories

Friendship Circle of Cleveland’s Mitzvah Volunteer Program leads to winning relationships between teens and special-needs children

Doing mitzvahs came naturally to Stuart Spiegel’s daughter, Elana. So joining the Mitzvah Volunteer Program at Friendship Circle of Cleveland in early 2015 made perfect sense for the Beachwood resident following her Memorial Day 2014 bat mitzvah.

For Elana and many other Greater Cleveland youth, the Mitzvah Volunteer Program is a gateway that can become a lifetime of helping those with special needs.

“Thank God my daughter is a giving person and she loves doing mitzvahs,” Spiegel says. “This is just something that she really wanted to do. She is a natural with kids, so this was just a perfect match for her.”

The Mitzvah Volunteer Program was started in 2013 and has been growing ever since. Each year, there are multiple sessions, each of which begins in a classroom as about 15 pre-teens and teenagers like Spiegel have four classes where they watch films and learn about various disabilities. They even simulate having certain disabilities, to get a sense of what that is like.

“We don’t train teenagers,” points out Rabbi Yossi Marozov, Friendship Circle of Cleveland executive director. “You don’t train someone to be a friend. You educate them on some of the needs that the children have that you can work with in developing a friendship.”

There’s a lot to learn. Friendship Circle of Cleveland helps children with a wide variety of diagnoses, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Academic learning complete, volunteers are prepared to begin interacting with those with special needs.

For those imagining a dimly lit cafeteria table with volunteers on one side and children with special needs on the other engaged in hushed, awkward banter, think again.

Volunteers and children with special needs may enjoy the services of a music therapist together, joyously singing and playing instruments. They may do an art project together. They might play a game straight out of gym class – or they might play a board game.

Throughout, valuable lessons are imparted.

For the child with special needs, it’s a chance to learn from someone who isn’t Mom or Dad.

“The child participant is learning about taking turns, waiting for their turn, keeping focus on the game, how to win and how to lose. Those are important skills,” says Rena Wertheim, program administrator at the Friendship Circle of Cleveland. “Everything’s better when it’s with a friend, so leading by example with a similar-aged-peer model, it just seems to strike a chord with participants.”

For the volunteer, it’s more than just a few Sunday classes or a summer. It’s more than The President’s Volunteer Service Award, complete with a letter from the president, which participants may be eligible for. It’s more than burnishing the college résumé, though it achieves that end, too. Many have actually gone on to become behavioral therapists or special-education teachers.

“We have seen incredible growth in the teenagers that take the time to do this type of volunteer work,” Marozov says. “Some of the teenagers get career-focused based on the work that they’ve done here.”

For all those reasons and more, Wertheim says that she has seen success as she recruits volunteers at local congregations and day schools.

“There were some who were interested,” Wertheim says. “I’m expecting some of them will sign up.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether participants ever become special-needs teachers, because at the end of the day, the Mitzvah Volunteer Program is about perception as much as anything else.

Disabilities are uncomfortable and scary for many. People don’t know whether to be sympathetic or act normal, to ignore differences or address them. Simply put, people don’t know how to interact with those who have special needs.

So the chance to teach pre-teenagers and teenagers, like those entering the Mitzvah Volunteer Program, at a critical juncture in their lives is priceless.

Teenagers can be horribly mean, bullying those who are different from them, but they can also be incredibly open-minded, and many have hearts of gold.

“Today’s teenagers get a bad rap,” Marozov says. “Teenagers are an army of good waiting to be unleashed. Friendship Circle harnesses that energy.”

That’s what makes the Mitzvah Volunteer Program so exciting for many of the people who actually run it. This is a chance to shape the next generation. This is a chance to create more and more people who actually get it, who actually feel comfortable engaging with those who are different from them.

As Wertheim says, this is about “showing them that a person with a disability is a person first.”

“I just think (Elana) was exposed to a lot of different kids at this camp,” Spiegel says. “She saw stuff that she’s never seen before, so I think it was an eye-opening experience for her.”

And those lessons truly last a lifetime.

“We often put people in silos, disabled and non-disabled,” says Tom Sudow, who is on the board of directors of Friendship Circle of Cleveland. “What this does is it really humanizes people with disabilities and it educates the typical child, so as they do this, they never really look at a disabled person the same again.”

And so there is a tie between the Mitzvah Volunteer Program and the bar or bat mitzvah itself, even though any pre-teen is welcome to join, whether they can read haftorah or not. After all, the bar or bat mitzvah is all about becoming a man or a woman. That, to some extent, has been regarded as a parlor joke, because any parent knows (or at least hopes) that their child at 12 isn’t the same as their child at 22 or 32. Indeed, brain development carries on for many years after the bar or bat mitzvah.

But the bar or bat mitzvah does perhaps mark the beginning of truly growing up – and this is a way to help determine the child’s path.

Children may come in saying, “They’re weird.” or “They’re different.”

That can be changed in an instant.

“(Volunteers) start to see them as people,” Sudow says. “That’s a very, very positive thing.”

Marozov is in a position where he gets to see much of the feedback sent in by program volunteers.

He says that words and terms that come up are “transformative” and “character-building” and “the most amazing experience they’ve ever had.”

“For many teenagers that get involved in Friendship Circle, it’s truly transformative to them,” Marozov says.

But beyond the critical “lessons” they carry on, they hopefully have a good time. For the volunteers, the program can become a deeply social environment. Many come with classmates or neighbors. It’s a chance to create new friendships and deepen existing ones.

And for the kids they serve, it ultimately comes down to one incredibly valuable concept: friendship.

The reality for many with special needs is they need friends as much as anyone, perhaps more, but all too frequently, they go without, in part because their peers may not know how to interact with them.

And that’s where Friendship Circle and girls like Elana Spiegel come in.

“Our job is to step in and fill the void,” Marozov says. 

This article appeared in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Bar•Bat Mitzvah.