In the Twin Cities, Sha’arim works to give individualized educational support to children with special needs. Working with its eight partner schools and offering referral services to families around the metro area, the organization’s mission is to provide education and inclusion opportunities to all Jewish children with special needs.
But when Layah Shagalow joined Sha’arim in August 2010, she sat in on intake meetings and talked with parents about what more the organization could do for their children.
“After hearing all these parents again say, ‘Sha’arim is great, it’s helping so much, educationally, but what can you do for us socially? My kid’s not getting invited to birthday parties. He’s getting tutored for his Bar Mitzva and he can read Hebrew, but he has no friends to invite to his Bar Mitzva,’” Shagalow told the AJW, “we wanted to see something happen in that way. If Sha’arim can be that educationally, why can’t it be that other part for these kids?”
Twenty-year-old Shagalow, the daughter of Sha’arim program director Chana Shagalow, began developing a program that was modeled on Friendship Circle, a program for which she had volunteered while attending a Chabad high school in Chicago. Shagalow’s older sister also has a mild developmental disability, so she is acutely aware of children with unique challenges and abilities.
“It’s always something that I’m very drawn to and something that I see the need for and care a lot about,” Shagalow said. “Having been a teen on one end of it and being so drawn to this kind of program and working with these kinds of kids, and working with the kids themselves and seeing it from their end, I really wanted this to happen.”
The pieces finally fell into place when the Shagalows say they received “the gift of Todd.”
Todd Sandler, 24, is a Minneapolis native who was a member of BBYO in high school. He worked as an activities coordinator at Herzl Camp and enjoyed working with the teens there. But when the position of BBYO director at the Sabes JCC became available, he said it was a “no-brainer.”
“With camp, I only had three months to supervise these teens and help direct them where I thought they would need to be; now I get to do that over years,” Sandler said. “I’ve had the opportunity to really have an influence, but as well just to make them the best leaders that they can be.”
Sandler began his position in January and immediately reached out to Anita Lewis, the inclusion director at the Sabes JCC, to explore ways BBYO could become more involved in the community. Lewis put Sandler in touch with Sha’arim and a partnership was born.
Sandler and Shagalow launched the Friends ’N Fun program earlier this year. The program offers guided social opportunities for students in grades K-8 who are currently served by Sha’arim or the inclusion program at the Sabes JCC. BBYO provides teen volunteers who engage with the students in friendship and fun.
The first event took place on March 27 at Pump It Up in Plymouth, which was attended by 20 students and 18 BBYO teens.
“There were at least three parents who stood in the parking lot and cried,” Shagalow said. “They were so happy that their kids were looking forward to something and that they came, and that they were part of a group. There was no potential for their kid to have a bad time, to be singled out, for something embarrassing to happen, for them to isolate themselves even more, alienate themselves. They were just so happy that there was this opportunity for their kids.”
For their part, the BBYO teens meet with Layah Shagalow and Chana Shagalow prior to each event to discuss possible concerns and any specific needs students may have. Sha’arim staff are also on hand at events to handle any situations that may arise.
The next Friends ’N Fun event is set for May 1 at Skyzone Trampoline Park in Plymouth, which is invitation-only (contact Sha’arim for information on how to become part of the program). As the AJW went to press, 22 students had already signed up as well as 26 BBYO volunteers.
“Part of this is that BBYO teens are leaders in the community and are training to be future community members and leaders. It’s a good place for them to strengthen their maturity and to make them more open to things that they don’t necessarily understand, and more willing to take risks and have new experiences,” Sandler said. “More than anything, these kids are a significant part of the community and if they’re not being served the way that they deserve to be, I think it’s nice that we’re able to fill that void in some respect… You can’t really call yourselves a community-based organization unless you’re inclusive and reach out to any and all people that could be possible participants.”
The Friends ’N Fun program is funded by sponsorships and donations, which allows the events to be offered to participants free of charge. The program is accepting additional donations as well as volunteers who are at least 16 years old.
“It’s just a uniting thing,” Shagalow said. “We’re all part of the same community and everybody has something that they bring to that community, and it wouldn’t be the same without every single person.”
For information on the Friends ’N Fun program, contact Layah Shagalow at Sha’arim at 952-303-5276 or: email@example.com; or Todd Sandler at BBYO at 952-381-3495 or: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since 1912 the AJW has served as an important news resource for the Jewish community. The Jewish World unites the main Jewish communities in St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as those in Duluth, Rochester and smaller cities, and bridges the divides between the various Jewish religious streams.