This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
For me, it was in third grade.
I was in the bathroom and there was screaming that was not really words, but utterances, from behind another stall door. I could hear crying and knew something was not going well. I asked if someone needed help and there was just banging on the door. I was (and still am) a short person, so I crawled under the stall … and there was Sylvia.
Sylvia was in the self-contained special education classroom in my elementary school. In 1978, this was the way schools were set up and mainstream kids like me had very little interaction with kids in the self-contained classes. Sylvia was what we now would refer to as moderately developmentally delayed; she had some verbal skills but no real connections and no ability to make a sentence. There she was … just standing there … all ready to get out of the bathroom stall, but she had accidentally locked herself in. I unlocked it. We went to wash our hands and then it dawned on me that I should walk her back to her classroom to let the teacher know what had happened, since she was so distressed just moments earlier. I walked her to the classroom, told the teacher what happened and went to leave. As I did, Sylvia ran up and hugged me. I felt great about what had happened and moved on with my day.
Later that week, we were on the playground at recess and this boy, Marcus, came up and hugged me and told me that I was his friend now since I was Sylvia’s friend. Marcus was nearly six feet tall in fifth grade and also had developmental challenges, but he was able to communicate more effectively than Sylvia. Marcus just hugged me … every single day on the playground for that entire year. And every single day on the playground the year after, until he graduated and went to the junior high.
Maybe it was because I have some connection with people who want to be understood, maybe it was because I love to communicate with people in any way and felt like Sylvia must really need someone to help her to communicate, maybe it was because I liked it when I felt important by helping another person. Whatever the reason, there it was … my love for people with learning challenges and developmental differences. As clear as day, in third grade.
I continued this path as I grew older: I volunteered for kids with special needs in my town, befriended the kids in camp that no one else really wanted to hang out with, and even got a scholarship in senior year of high school for pursuing a career in special education. I went off to college and thought I would be a teacher, but once there decided that social work was more my style. All through college I coached five different sports in the Special Olympics (where one athlete asked me if I knew that, even though I did not have special needs, I was the worst player on our basketball team … and I was the coach), was head of the Students for Special Needs program, and did other volunteer work. I found an AMAZING Jewish camp to work at for children who had challenges, and found a mentor there that was inspiring. Ten years later, when he left, I got his job running the camp and continued to do so for about a decade. Now I am blessed to be working in another camp that is all about inclusion, and special needs inclusion is one part of this.
I would guess that I have worked with over a thousand young people and adults with special needs – all types of special needs – in a camping setting and I must tell you that it NEVER once dawned on me that this was a big deal. I mean, my sister loved to work with clothing and went into fashion, my brother loved to make deals and became an attorney, and I loved to help people so I went into social work with a focus on special needs. I know this will sound cliché, but I learn more from someone with challenges than they will ever learn from me. I get to be there for a family when they think no one is going to “get them” and their situation. I learn about acceptance of people’s strengths and weaknesses and that it is ok to have both. I gain an appreciation for things that are going well and a tolerance for things when they are not.
I know one thing for sure: no matter what I do for my entire career, the most important thing I ever did was crawl under a bathroom stall and unlock a door for my friend Sylvia.