Julie Averbach was not a fan of comic books, nor does she have a sibling with special needs. And yet, Averbach is one of 10 Girl Scouts from around the United States to be named a 2016 National Young Woman of Distinction, a recognition she received as a result of the comic book she created to support siblings of children with special needs. It turns out, she said, that the comic book medium has great educational and therapeutic potential.
“Geek culture and comic books are an art form that is not only entertaining and engaging but can also be used to make people think,” she said.
The 16-year-old — who lives in Millburn with her parents, Renee Wainberg Averbach and Cyro Averbach, and sister Emily — has been helping families with children who have special needs for the past few years as part of the Chabad-run Friendship Circle, which recruits teens to assist families with a child with challenges. Inspired by the need she saw, Julie — a member of the Girls Scouts Heart of New Jersey troop — undertook to create the therapeutic comic book as her Gold Award project.
The award is the highest honor the movement gives; recipients are chosen from thousands of nominees in grades nine through 12. It recognizes their achievement in transforming “an idea and vision for change into an actionable plan with measurable, sustainable, and far-reaching impact at the local, national, and global levels.”
So far, 8,000 copies of Adventures From My World have been printed and are being distributed. They have gone out to organizations like Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, to sibling support groups and universities — including Rutgers’ Social Skills Program — and schools and hospitals around the United States and beyond, to Canada, Brazil, England, and Australia.
Julie described her project as an act of tikun olam, repairing the world. “One of the most rewarding parts has been connecting with individual siblings and seeing their reactions to the stories,” she told NJJN. “It has been incredible watching them open up about their most difficult experiences — sometimes even for the first time — after reading my comic book. Knowing that my words help them to feel comforted, relieved, and understood means everything to me.”
She began volunteering with the Friendship Circle six years ago. “Through my involvement, I recognized that parents often must dedicate so many resources to their children with special needs that the emotional needs of their other children are overlooked,” she said.
As a middle school student, she joined the Heart of NJ troop, which she chose in part because it is inclusive of youngsters with different ability levels. “As a Girl Scout, when you recognize a need, your instinct is to take action and do something about it,” she said. “And so, based on my volunteering experiences and the lack of innovative resources for special-needs siblings, I decided to create Adventures From My World.
Her goal, she explained, was “to showcase some of the hardships and joys that special-needs siblings encounter on a daily basis, while reassuring them that they are neither alone nor forgotten. Another one of my goals was to enhance general compassion and awareness regarding the challenges that others face.”
Julie wrote, edited, and published the book. The brightly colored illustrations were done by three artists she recruited from the Dover-based Kubert School of cartooning and graphic art, Petterson Oliveira, Vanessa Solis, and Dov Smiley. It contains three stories, each tackling the emotional and practical challenges of living with a special-needs sibling.
Doing the project proved challenging, not least from her “inner critic,” but she made one really heartening discovery: “People are usually more willing to help us than we realize.”
Fund-raising was tough. Applying for grants didn’t work, but “in the end, my troop used some of our cookie proceeds to pay for 100 proofs, and I funded the rest from my personal savings from my bat mitzva,” she said. “I let my passion and dedication to the project drive my financial investment.”
In addition to handling the normal busyness of her final year in high school, Julie — as a National Young Woman of Distinction — will be representing the Girl Scouts at events and working to increase the impact of her book. She said, “I am particularly looking forward to meeting with younger Girl Scouts to show them that with grit, passion, and resilience, they can surpass even their own expectations and create sustainable change.”
The Girl Scouts, she said, “has shown me the power of my ideas and the reality that I can achieve them. It has helped me develop into a confident leader who can inspire others, and do anything I set my mind to.”
The NYWOD awards were presented at a national leadership meeting in Philadelphia in late October. The recipients were given a combined $50,000 in college scholarships by the Kappa Delta Foundation as an expression of its commitment to girls’ education and development. The other projects honored included ones dealing with diagnosing Ebola, an effort to boost students’ interest in STEM courses, the racial achievement gap and social injustice, and a documentary about the heroin epidemic.