Shea Doty shares gap-year experience
By Deb Silverthorn
Aardvarks are thought to have a keen ability to sense danger and the ability to find what is lost. For Shea Doty, who just returned from the Aardvark Israel program, her ability to sense danger — and her desire to hold on to the experience of a lifetime — conflicted.
“I didn’t want to leave, but I was scared to stay. My gut said it was time to come home,” said Doty, who returned March 20. “A big part of me believed that Israel was going to have a vaccine for COVID-19, and I still think that, but I couldn’t take the chance.”
For Doty — the daughter of Amy and Tim, sister of Jessie and Jackson and 2019 graduate of Yavneh Academy — planning the adventure, and carrying it out, came with extra forethought. Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis almost three years ago, every six weeks she relied on Dallasites, visiting Israel, to hand-carry her infusion medication. When the quick turnaround to return home came about, there was a last infusion to coordinate amongst her farewells.
Ulcerative colitis is an auto-immune disease that can cause long-lasting inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract. While it didn’t present until Doty was 16-years-old, during her sophomore through senior years she was often in the emergency room for fluids. Once she turned 18, she was eligible for a medication trial which has greatly controlled the disease that, while it has no cure, is possible to send into remission. Once she was feeling better, and knowing she could manage her care, she planned her gap year.
“I wanted more than classroom study and prayer focus. Aardvark was the perfect mix that also gave me volunteering opportunities and internships where I could learn and grow,” said Doty. “I lived in an apartment, learned to budget and shop, to cook and become an true adult.”
Doty spent one semester in Jerusalem, volunteering at a children’s rehabilitation hospital, working with patients with intellectual, physical or respiratory disabilities, then at a rock-climbing gym, teaching classes and working with the startup producing its website and with a fashion photographer. In January, she moved to Tel Aviv for the program’s classes for credit, also working with Aardvark to create a social media campaign, updating it as COVID-19 began to spread.
“I learned so much and there are no words for how sorry I am it’s over,” said Doty. “The people were so respectful of us, never treating us like kids or like we were starting out and new.”
“Unfortunately, after Purim the spirit changed even though Aardvark tried to make it work,” she said. “Soon, we couldn’t go more than 300 meters, or have 10 people at our apartment. Trips were canceled and it was time to return.”
Meanwhile, Aardvark Israel continues, with students and families considering daily whether to stay or not. At press time, approximately 55 students remain, with close to 60% choosing to return home. The program’s staffers live in the same quarters as its participants and a plan is in place if needed should anyone become ill.
“We respect whatever decision our families are making, whether to stay or leave,” said Gal Badash, Israeli-born but raised in North Texas with her parents, McKinney residents Anat and Udi Badash. After graduating from J.J. Pearce High School, Badash returned to Israel, and is now Aardvark’s recruiting coordinator. “The program continues, in a different way, as we’ve brought all of our students and staff together in Tel Aviv so that we can more easily monitor progress, health and needs and so there are plenty of people to engage with.”
Badash says the program is now primarily focused on online fun and educational classes, lectures, seminars and workshops as well as physical activity to keep participants active and healthy.
“For the first week or so, it didn’t seem like we had to leave, and I didn’t want to,” said Doty. “Then, with some borders closing, and my medical concerns, there was no choice.”
In planning the almost overnight return, Doty had to pack up, say her goodbyes to dozens of new best friends and the faculty, and then … make her way to Jerusalem for a last-minute infusion. Concerned about having to isolate immediately upon return to Dallas, she didn’t want to take a chance.
“The desire to spend real time learning the country, was all Shea’s and after all she’d been through, I was going to move mountains to make it happen,” said Amy Doty, for whom coordinating her daughter’s return included setting up a car for the roundtrip to Jerusalem and the medical arrangements. “I’m so proud of the care she took of and for herself, and the grown up young woman she’s become.”
At home, Doty feels fine, has had no symptoms, and she is spending quarantine creating a scrapbook of her months abroad, reading, writing, working on projects for the Texas Jewish Post (she, the great-granddaughter of Texas Jewish Post founders Rene and Jimmy Wisch, of blessed memory, and her mother is the paper’s vice president of sales and marketing). She plans to go to work and to school in the fall and has her eye on a future in psychology or medicine.
“Making decisions wasn’t my strong suit before I left,” said Doty. “Through almost six months of great, and a couple of weeks of crazy, I found my voice and I know I can conduct my own life.”
Shea Doty went to study, and to learn — it seems life’s most valuable lessons came unplanned, and from outside of the classroom.