Laughter With Lots Of Marshmallows

I volunteer with differently abled students and I’ve learned to find meaningful points of connection. 

Shira Wald reads to one of her young students who participates in the Gateways’ Sunday Program. Courtesy Gateways

Throughout my three years volunteering at the Gateways’ Sunday Program, I have learned from my students as much as my students have learned from me. Gateways is an organization that helps students with special needs learn about Judaism and become active participants in their Jewish communities. Each year I have had the opportunity to work with a new student and gained new insights and experiences from each one.

My first year at Gateways was during my sophomore year and I was very nervous. I had no idea what to expect from the Sunday Program other than bits of information I picked up from my two older sisters who were also volunteers. The Gateways’ Sunday Program is a Hebrew school where volunteers work one-on-one with special-needs students to teach them Hebrew and Jewish traditions.

The weekly program is packed with activities such as Hebrew lessons, music, circle time (where we learn about traditions or an upcoming holiday), snack and more. On my first day in the classroom I felt a little awkward, not knowing if my student would feel comfortable with me. I just hoped that he would not notice that I was not totally confident. Luckily, he was very patient with me as I learned how the schedule at Gateways worked. I learned a lot of logistics over the first few weeks, such as how to transition from music to Hebrew to circle time as well as what to do during each activity.

My student, who was around 20 years old, discovered that I was equally patient with him when he wanted to take a break and go for a walk. We worked together to make each other feel comfortable. I soon discovered that he was extremely friendly. When I started seeing him at synagogue on the weekends, he never hesitated to come over and say “Shabbat Shalom,” which always brightened my weekend.

As time went on, we were able to move past feeling uncomfortable. We began discussing our plans, weekends and pets. I especially loved seeing pictures of his cat from week to week. I also always made sure to have pictures of my two dogs readily available in case the topic of dogs came up, which it almost always did. Each week became more seamless than the one before as we learned more about each other, such as our favorite colors and favorite animals, but we also learned how to work together. I understood when a break was necessary based on his body language and what learning styles he preferred.

This year, I am having just as positive an experience with a sweet, young girl. I especially enjoy all the laughs we share. Once she and I made edible dreidels out of marshmallows, but somehow the marshmallows seemed to end up everywhere but in our stomachs, and all we could do was laugh. She is not shy around me at all, yet she is very shy around the other students and volunteers. One of my biggest goals for her is to interact with the other students in the classroom, and feel comfortable opening up not only with me but with the other volunteers. I often prompt her to ask another volunteer or student a conversation-starter question such as, “What is your favorite food?” and I am very excited when it sparks an entire conversation.

Perhaps even more exciting than the friendship I share with my students is the connection that everyone in the classroom shares. Recently at Gateways one of the young girls went over to a young boy and asked him for one of his apple slices. Without hesitation, he opened his bag of apple slices and asked which piece she wanted. This was a small gesture that showed what Gateways is all about — everyone (students, volunteers and parents) all working together to create a warm, caring environment. People are ready and willing to share, not just apple slices, but conversations, time and energy. People are willing to put in something of themselves. Everyone is able to take something out: knowledge and friendship from those around fashion

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