By Devorah Gurevich, Opinion Editor
Matthew and Alex ran full speed around the “quiet room,” a place where a child can play alone and wind down if they felt overwhelmed, then ducked into the pillow fort. I had been deemed puppeteer of a man-eating (teddy) bear that I hauled to the fort, saying, “I’m coming to eat you…” Those classic words induced giggles and half-hearted battle with the giant teddy. Matthew, age 6, had been hiding under a table in the music room just minutes before, near tears, and refusing to join the sing-along. I had made an effort in encouraging him out from under the table, but he adamantly refused, eyes watering and cheeks becoming ruddy. I could tell he was feeling overwhelmed, and the noisy instruments weren’t helping. Further, his distress began to upset his 3-year-old brother, Alex. “Let’s take a break,” I soothed. He nodded, and they led the way to the familiar sanctuary, the brothers holding each of my hands. Soon enough, both boys were lively again, building an impressive castle from pillows and goading the Teddy monster.
The Friendship Circle is as much of a pleasure for me as it is to the special needs kids of all ages that attended, including Matthew. Before joining the volunteer ranks at Friendship Circle, I had no experience with and little understanding of special needs. I joined the summer before my senior year, soon after moving to Cleveland (after a year and a half living in Israel), and I was inspired to continue working at Friendship Circle after volunteering at the organization’s summer camp.
My family had moved to Safed, Israel, from Los Angeles in the middle of my 10th grade, and the transition was rough. Between the language barrier and my sudden loneliness, our displacement created many academic and mental health challenges. Amid all the chaos, I searched for stability, and I found it in helping others.
In Safed, I took the initiative in finding volunteering gigs at a second-hand store for the needy and at an elderly day center. By doing so, I discovered how my skills and dedication could serve to make others happy. Moreover, I learned a lot from the individuals I met along the way.
From Yaffa, who founded and ran the second-hand store, I was inspired by her perseverance despite personal loss and genuine compassion for those in need. From 81-year-old Trudy, I learned companionship could be simply sitting in another’s presence. And finally, from all the wonderful kids at the Friendship Circle, including Matthew and Alex, I discovered that our differences are not necessarily weaknesses. Everyone has a unique way of expressing themselves; love, passion, sadness communicated “unconventionally” are still valid.
Ultimately, my eagerness to learn and my general adoration for people drew me to volunteering for years. Further, although I work to help others, I have immense gratitude for those who allowed me to find assurance in their smiles when my world unsettled me.