When parenting a child with special needs, Shabbos and Yomtov can be especially challenging. There’s no school, less structure, and fewer options for entertainment. As we touched on in an earlier column, some neighborhoods and communities have groups of volunteers who help out on these days, coming over to spend time with the child or taking the child out for an hour or two.
Generally, these activities are managed informally. Someone needs an extra hand, someone else has a teen who needs to fill his or her ‘chesed hours’ requirement, and everybody wins. Sometimes, a youth group or local organization takes the reins and coordinates volunteer activities. Here in Monsey, however, there’s one agency that has taken this kind of chesed to the next level, managing some 250 volunteers who help families during after-school hours, on weekends, on legal holidays, and more.
Full disclosure: We have benefited directly from Yedei Chesed’s various programs, so we’re a little biased in our appreciation of the dedicated staff and volunteers there.
Suri Schwartz is the coordinator of Yedei Chesed’s volunteer and children’s after-school programs. She explains that word-of-mouth is the way most teens find out about the volunteer opportunities at Yedei Chesed.
“There are tons of opportunities,” she says. “You can work in the respite programs on Sunday and after-school hours. On Shabbos, we have a whole volunteer program where volunteers take kids either to their houses or to B’nos groups.”
Yedei Chesed’s after-school program runs on weekday afternoons from 3:30 to 5:30, and the Sunday program runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., according to Ruthie Wertheimer, director of the Sunday program.
“Volunteering with us can be flexible,” she adds. “It really depends on what days and times work for you.”
When someone wants to volunteer, they have to fill out an application and provide references, Schwartz adds. When everything checks out, the volunteer is added to her database.
Schwartz reaches out to parents to find out about each child’s unique needs, and she passes that information to the volunteers. She also encourages the volunteers to connect with parents ahead of time and find out what activities would be of the most help.
Help is nearby
“We have a map of volunteers,” explains Schwartz, “We type the client’s address in, and all the volunteers who live near that address pop up.” After that, she calls the volunteers and determines who’s available and during what hours.
The volunteers work with Yedei Chesed clients on Shabbos afternoons and Sundays, primarily, but Schwartz and her team handle special requests, as well. “I always ask the parents what their most critical times are,” she says. “For example, I had a parent who was going to Israel, so they needed someone to wait for their daughter to come off the bus at 3:30 every day.”
On Shabbos, volunteers are encouraged to visit children in pairs and take them for a walk, or back to the volunteer’s home. In one neighborhood, there were enough volunteers and clients to support a weekly B’nos program. “We have 15-20 kids who come with their volunteers, and we have Shabbos party and singing,” Schwartz says. “We’d love to expand this to other neighborhoods. We’re just looking for homes that are willing to host.”
Every Motzei Shabbos and Sunday, Schwartz calls each volunteer to follow up and collect feedback on how their visits went.
The Sunday program at Yedei Chesed serves around 40 special-needs children every week. Wertheimer helped launch the volunteer program some eight years ago, and she says it’s a good way for teens to learn responsibility.
“The kids need consistency,” she explains, “they get used to the same person. So I impress on the staff and the volunteers that they need to treat this like a real job.”
One volunteer with whom we spoke says that the participants in the program take their roles very seriously. “I love to spend time with my ‘kids’ every week,” she reports, “and we definitely develop a strong friendship over time.”
This personal relationship is what pushes these young volunteers to help with home visits, holiday activities, and even extended childcare when needed.
Volunteering at Yedei Chesed isn’t just about hard work and responsibility. The staff organize ‘volunteer appreciation’ events every few months to ensure that fun and excitement are part of the experience. “We’ll have Melava Malkas, barbecues, and other fun stuff to keep everyone going,” Schwartz says.
It’s safe to say that volunteering at Yedei Chesed -- or any other program for children with special needs – pays off in countless ways. If you’re interested in learning more about the opportunities at Yedei Chesed, you can contact Suri Schwartz at 845-425-0887, extension 275.
By Michelle and Yaakov Steinhart