Under the direction of Chanie Lazaroff, Friendship Circle of Los Angeles’ (FCLA) inclusion specialist, an innovative project has been underway the last few months. Toras Emes has hosted a new program between FCLA and the Build a Heart Project. Both organizations joined forces to create an inclusion program where Torah Emes’ seventh grade volunteers buddied up with Friendship Circle kids.
While Friendship Circle is known for supporting special needs children, and their families, Build a Heart, is a project of Chasdei Avigail, a program created in loving memory of Avigail Rechnitz, who was a paragon of chesed in the Jewish Community. Chaya Ullmann, the coordinator of this program, explained, “We wanted to create a program where our students would be introduced to different populations, learn about different needs and abilities, and use their talents, strength, and time to give back to the community. We call it Build A Heart, because Heart is our acronym for Humility, Empathy, Altruism, Responsibility, and Thankfulness, which are the five essentials of a giver.”
In preparation, the girls participated in a sensitivity and awareness workshop led by Friendship Circle. The students were directed to perform certain activities with earplugs and glasses with blinding prescriptions. Ultimately, the kids admitted they had not realized how frustrating it must be to live with these impairments on a regular basis. Ullmann remarked, “This collaboration with Friendship Circle was done with the hope of raising awareness and comfort levels for our students when meeting kids with special needs.”
Once the workshops were complete, it was time to begin the inclusion program. The FCLA children were warmly welcomed by the entire Toras Emes staff, who provided school uniforms so that the kids would feel they fit in. After the kids were matched with a student volunteer, they worked together on Jewish themed arts & crafts. Next, everyone participated in group davening. This was particularly meaningful for the kids, as they are not given the chance to do this as part of their regular routine in the public schools they attend.
Each child then transitioned into classrooms. Some participated in circle time and aleph bais instruction, while others worked on parsha crafts and participated in group activities. The kids also interacted with peers during recess. On the first day, there was dance, music and gross motor skill activities. The second day included a story hour and the third day included a creative dance program.
Throughout the days, it became apparent how incredible the volunteers were while interacting with the children. They were attentive, intuitive and warm, and the children loved coming each day and participating.
The program came to an exciting end with the seventh graders putting on a play for the FCLA children and other students to enjoy. One FCLA girl wanted to be part of the play and she grabbed a costume and sat on stage through several scenes. It was great to see how the girls were able to seamlessly work around the new addition to the play and they even changed their lines to make Shira feel included. It was a very special moment and Shira was noticeably thrilled to be apart of it.
The beauty behind this extraordinary program was that the FCLA kids enjoyed a memorable event where they could connect with their Jewish roots while developing new friendships. The Toras Emes students were able to understand that kids with special needs are not so different from themselves.