Despite the unseasonably chilly and rainy spring evening, the JCC of Mid-Westchester in Scarsdale hummed with the crackling energy of nearly 30 teenagers playing cards and board games, chatting and joking and devouring a dinner of pizza and soda.
What looked like an unremarkable gathering was in fact something much more.
This monthly event, the Teen Saturday Night Social, offers an opportunity for special needs teenagers and their non-special needs peers to get together once a month for low-pressure, low-key socializing. There are about 40 teenagers enrolled in the program, which targets ages 12 through 19. There are currently 25 volunteers and 15 participants. The Westchester Program Services Cabinet of UJA-Federation of New York in Westchester provided a two-year grant for the initiative, which runs between September and June.
The JCC of Mid-Westchester organized the program to respond to “what parents are requesting,” said Mara Roberge, director of developmental disabilities enrichment services. “One parent came to me and said, ‘His siblings always have somewhere to go. Kids with special needs need that.’”
The reality is that even when public school classrooms are inclusive, often there’s little social connection between special needs students and their classmates.
As one mother, Kelly, of Tuckahoe, said, her son Ben “falls through the cracks.” Kelly asked that her last name not be used to protect her son’s privacy. In public school he’s placed with students who have significant cognitive and emotional impairments, which has left Ben eager to find more compatible social peers.
“He asks me, ‘How do you have a conversation?” said Kelly. “He’s trying to fit in.” When Kelly went to the school and told them that Ben needed friends, the administration sent them to the JCC.
For Rhona Aronstein of New Rochelle, being able to bring her son back to the JCC was especially meaningful. While her son, Jason, who has an intellectual disability, had been involved with the JCC of Mid-Westchester since he was five, participating in religious school classes, after-school programs and day camp, he had aged out of the available programs when he was 15.
“The JCC is a wonderful, caring environment, that’s ‘another home,’” said Aronstein. “I love the fact that he can still be involved in the Jewish Community Center, which is an anchor from his childhood. It’s low key and low pressure.”
Here, clusters of teens, seamlessly mingling special needs teens into the groups, chatted as they played Monopoly, Battleship or Sorry.
“I wanted to build bonds with kids in my community,” said 14-year-old Hayden Roberge of New Rochelle. “There’s one girl who remembers my name and smiles every time. That’s most rewarding. I stay near a certain kid to make her feel more comfortable. We’ll do games they’ll be good at.”
For 15-year-old Adina Farca, a sophomore at Solomon Schechter School-Upper School in Hartsdale, volunteering with this program was an appealing way to fulfill her school’s community service requirement.
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“I started in September, and felt engaged,” said Adina. “I really enjoyed it. I like working with people.”
Besides pizza, movies and games, a key element of the evening involves some form of social action or volunteer activity, said Mara Roberge. “My community shouldn’t just be on the receiving end. That’s why I added a social action component.” Some of the efforts have included making blankets for Project Linus, which provides blankets for seriously ill or traumatized children, and care packages for troops.