By Rachel Gross Weinstein
“Inclusion: I’m In” was the theme for this year’s J-Serve. More than 100 Dallas teens gathered on April 22 to volunteer at Family Fun Day at the Aaron Family JCC. Throughout the day, teens were involved in handling and overseeing various carnival events, while buddying up with those in the special needs community.
Though the Dallas chapter of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) has coordinated J-Serve since 2010, and though as part of that effort, BBYO teens have volunteered at different organizations, this is the first year that the event focused on a specific collaboration with the Special Needs Partnership of Jewish Family Service (JFS).
“The whole goal was to partner with the Special Needs Partnership to learn how to be inclusive and put that into action,” said Tracy Davis, BBYO program associate. “It is important for BBYO teens to reach out to those with special needs. This was a learning experience for everyone and it wasn’t about the number of people that participated, but the quality of the experience the teens had working with those with special needs.”
Davis noted that Family Fun Day was also a way for her to learn how to include those with special needs in BBYO activities if they are ever interested. Approximately 35 special needs kids attended Family Fun Day, and Davis said she would like it to repeat the experience next year.
The day had special meaning to the teens who volunteered. “There was something for everyone and it was nice seeing all of the teens pairing up with kids with special needs and participating in the carnival together,” said BBYO board member Lauren Zweig, a 10th grader. “This was a way to have fun and also be inclusive.”
Meanwhile, 11th-grader Dan Rosenfield — who has participated in J-Serve for the past two years — found that working with special needs kids brought a new perspective. “We don’t always get to interact with those with special needs,” he explained. “This was a great overall experience.”
In the months leading up to the event, JFS professionals worked with volunteer teens, training them about inclusion through role-playing exercises. The teenagers were also given tools to help them bond with others who have special needs.
BBYO also recently developed a special needs advisory board so teens can have the opportunity to plan events and find other ways to reach out to the special needs community. Teri Kachur, community organizer for the Special Needs Initiative, pointed out that the goal of this year’s event was to build connections between the BBYO teens and special needs kids.
“We wanted those with special needs to have a friend for the day and then have that translate into the BBYO kids everyday lives so they know how to befriend someone with special needs in the future,” Kachur added.