Hannah Glass’s 12th birthday party looked like any other birthday bash — gymnastics, balloons, music, and pizza. But for Hannah and her family, the occasion marked the first time that she celebrated with friends she truly connects with.
Hannah met her new friends through Hand in Hand, a program founded in 2006 by Chabad of the Shore in Long Branch to serve special-needs children and their families.
(A similar program, Friendship Circle, a project of the separately affiliated Chabad Lubavitch of Western Monmouth County, has served that area since 2001; see Related article.)
Both Hand in Hand and Friendship Circle offer social and recreational activities to children with autism and other emotional or physical challenges. They also link each participant with specially trained local teenagers who make weekly home visits to each child. The programs provide an “oxygen mask” of respite for parents, said Hannah’s mother, Adria.
“Being a parent of autistic children is 180 degrees different from what I ever expected as a parent,” said Hannah father, Tom. “Hand in Hand makes us feel very embraced and comforted. It is truly a gift — and a gift for our children is a 100-fold gift for my wife and me.”
According to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control study, one of every 94 children in New Jersey has autism, making it one of the highest rates across the country; April has been designated National Autism Awareness Month since the ’70s.
Hannah’s new friends gathered around her in the party room at Ace Gymnastics in Ocean recently as she performed her favorite song from the musical Annie.
“Hannah’s Hand in Hand friends give her the feeling of being surrounded by friends who really get her,” said Adria. “When she found out that all her Hand in Hand friends are Jewish, she felt an even stronger sense of belonging.”
The program is a labor of love for Chabad of the Shore director Rabbi Laibel Schapiro.
“Hand in Hand gives special-needs children and their families an opportunity to be part of something and makes them feel welcome and included,” Schapiro said. “Judaism teaches us to recognize the beauty and Godly spark each soul possesses, and to give each individual an opportunity to express it.”
For the Rose family of Rumson, Hand in Hand affects their family life in a very meaningful way. The teen buddies of 10-year-old Harrison, who is on the autistic spectrum, helped him learn how to ride a bike — an accomplishment his family never expected to see. He proudly displays a picture of the teens on his night table.
“A child with special needs doesn’t often get play dates and social opportunities,” said Harrison’s mother, Lane. “Without Hand in Hand, Harrison probably wouldn’t have friends. The Sunday activities allow us to meet other parents in similar situations. You don’t have to explain anything about how your child is acting, because we are all on the same page.”
Hand in Hand also offers Torah Circle, which teaches Jewish heritage in a fun, interactive way.
The secret to the programs’ success, said Hand in Hand program director Elana Marcus, MSW, is the dedication of the teen volunteers. “They sacrifice their time and energy to improve the lives of their special friends. They are true ambassadors for these children.”
For the last three years, Arielle Lang of Wayside has been the buddy of a 16-year-old Hand in Hand girl named Stephanie. “Stephanie has taught me so much about being accepting. I feel like she brought something out of me that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise,” said Arielle, who plans to study neuroscience and psychology in college.
One former volunteer, Gregory Bach of Rumson, is pursuing a degree in environmental health at the University of Michigan. His interest in the field developed during his three years of volunteering with Hand in Hand.
“He worked with a severely autistic young boy, who really opened up his eyes to never take things for granted,” said Gregory’s mother, Nancy.