From the Shutaf Kitchen

From guest blogger and newest Shutaf volunteer, Ada Broussard

My first introduction to Shutaf came when Beth Steinberg sat on a panel and for a mere 15 minutes talked about the organization’s inclusive programming for kids with special needs.  With warm gestures and wide eyes, Beth really captivated my class of mainly females, who after the panel, all waited like hungry dogs to get her card and hear a little more from this passionate woman from Brooklyn.

Now, it’s noteworthy that I often misplace things.  With good intention, the most mundane items like my cell phone, get left on the balcony, or hidden in the spice cabinet. Beth’s card, however, I put in my safest zipper compartment, and immediately put it on the fridge when I came home until I could sit down and email Beth. I wanted more Shutaf in my life, wanted to feel for myself the fun, open, and creative atmosphere that comes through from the video that Beth showed us.  And, if I could meet the wanna-be John Travolta featured on the video, well… my new life in Jerusalem would be that much more fulfilled.

And suddenly, after a probably over-eager e-mail, I found myself on an unknown bus, headed to an undiscovered part of town, to see the real-live Shutaf…  all whilst baking cookies with a Canadian-Israeli chef, and five older teens with special needs.  A bit nervous?  Definitely.  Equally excited?  Of course.

Here are a couple of things I  gleaned from my first day with Shutaf:

1.  Eating cookie dough is perhaps very Americana (I’d like to be proved wrong), and needs to be carefully marketed to the new bakers.  Seeing as this was the first week of a long series of baking classes, I have full confidence that by the end, bowls and spoons will be licked clean.

2.  There is no crying, only laughing, over spilled milk and broken eggs.  Baking with a room full of teens with special needs is no less messy than my baking by my lonesome, and the results are no less delicious (this week we made oatmeal-raisin cookies, sans raisins for some haters).

3.  For some, warm cookies are inherently more interesting than the baking process itself;  I hope the next class we can learn a bit more on the magic that happens when you mix baking soda with four and sugar, and that the end product is only the result of sweet stirring and purposeful measuring.

4.  And last, and probably the take-home theme of the day: Shutaf truly practices inclusion via quality programming. At this first baking class, I was the new girl in a room full of friends… not to mention, the new girl with the .. uhhum.. questionable Hebrew.  And yet, by the end, I forgot all about my apprehensions and found myself welcoming a slew of grammar corrections from five funny, opinionated, thoughtful, competent, and soon-to-be master baker teens.

I’m so glad I’ve found this little niche with Shutaf.  Even though, quite honestly, I don’t know what my niche will fully entail.  I do know, though, that if it includes me hanging with wonderful kids, learning more about quality special needs programming, and having weekly access to fresh-baked goods.. well… that’s fine by me and my belly.

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Special Teens

When is a teen with special needs being a “teen” and when is s/he being “special”?

That is a quandary that many parents of teens with special needs find themselves in. Think about it – teens can be moody, unpredictable, in their own world, extreme in their responses – different.   When you add special needs on top of all that, how is a parent to cope?

I often think that the first sign that my daughter Adina was becoming a teenager was when she refused to let me cut her bangs – starting right after her bat mitzvah. Her beautiful honey-colored, straight hair became a “curtain” that she very quickly realized was handy to hide behind. (Teen or Special needs?)

Adina fell in love with John Travolta, discovering Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter.  She decided to change her name to Vinnie and refuses to answer to Adina – even gets insulted when you use her “real” name. (Teen or Special needs?)

This week she brought a friend home directly from school without checking with me first. (Teen?) She then got tired of said friend after an hour, wanting her to go home already. (Special needs?)

Adina’s immediate response to any uncomfortable situation is to cry. All along I thought that was definitely special needs since I figured she cries because it’s hard for her to verbalize her feelings. (Special needs?) Then someone told me how her typical daughters spend a lot of time crying. (Teen?).

When they enter their teenage years kids with special needs are learning independence and forging their identity just like typical teens. But unlike their typical peers they do not have the resources to cope with the challenges of adolescence. Where does that leave us parents? We try to navigate this tricky territory together with our kids and let me tell you, it aint easy.

Embracing Independence

I almost can’t believe it. Adina is taking the Jerusalem city bus home from school. For a 16-year-old girl with Down syndrome, this is a HUGE step and can only happen if she has been properly prepared and taught how.

That’s where Shutaf comes in. Adina has been part of the Shutaf Teen Explorers’ program since its inception in summer 2010. The purpose of the program is to help young teens with special needs transition into this next stage of life, to see beyond their own, everyday worlds and realize that they can be part of the bigger community.

During Shutaf camp sessions, the kids take city buses together, visiting places of business, volunteering, learning self defense skills – taking a closer look at the community around us. Taking the bus together with her Shutaf friends and staffers was the perfect introduction for Adina to what can be a scary first time experience for any kid. Sure, she had taken public buses before with us but with Shutaf she learned to pay for herself and figure out where she wanted to sit or stand on the bus – without Mom taking the lead.

Most of the kids in her special ed. class ride the city buses and Adina decided she was ready to give it a try. I was excited by her initiative and ready to help her make it happen. I accompanied her on the school-home route five times and then she was ready to solo, equipped with a bus ticket and a cell phone. She’s been acing it – handling the crush on the bus calmly and completely sure in her knowledge of when to push the button and when to get off the bus.

My only concern is the unexpected and then it happened. This week Adina missed the bus for the first time. She has her own pace in life and I’ve never figured out how to rush her – it’s simply impossible. Know what she did? She called mom. The absolute right move. Yes, she was crying and upset but she problem solved and made the call. I was able to talk her through it, making her understand that she has to relax and be patient and wait for the next bus. Three calls later, she was on the bus – thrilled to have successfully managed the setback and quite proud of herself. Will she walk to the bus stop faster next time? Stay tuned…

Seemingly Small Steps

My daughter Adina hasn’t missed a Shutaf camp session yet – she’s been to all 13 of them since our first summer camp in August 2007. She was my reason for creating Shutaf with Beth Steinberg and embarking on this incredible journey together with our staff and all the children who have enjoyed many hours of quality inclusive programming at Shutaf.

Adina’s group, the Chokrim (Explorers) are an inclusive group of young teens who leave camp to go about town, learning independent living skills like riding a bus, paying for a snack, volunteering at a soup kitchen, self defense skills as well as learning about the wider community. Finding out what potential jobs are there? What does a hotel look like behind the scenes?

I love seeing Shutaf lessons brought home. Adina, 15 ½ , has always been hesitant to hold money in her hand, let alone feel confident enough to conduct a purchase on her own. At Shutaf she’s been learning how to make a simple purchase by herself with staff support. What an incredible opportunity.

Yesterday, we were having lunch at a local pizza parlor, enjoying the last day of summer vacation together. After lunch, Adina wanted ice cream for dessert.  I gave her the money and told her to go inside and buy it. Instead of her usual “you do it”, she agreed! Wow! In our world, that’s a tremendous breakthrough, close to a miracle… and it is thanks to Shutaf.