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Thrilling Second Shabbaton for Children with Special Needs Hosted by Hamaspik

April 20, 2016  

By Mendy Hecht, Hamaspik Gazette


Exclusive Children’s Getaway, Parental Break Broadens Agency’s Community Supports

“Who’s excited?” cheerfully calls a counselor from behind a video camera.

The lens sweeps the seats of the big yellow school bus filled with bouncing children, settling on one.

“Me!” he gleefully rejoins, joined by cheerful smiles and joyful squeals all around him.

That essentially sums up the Hamaspik of Rockland County Shabbaton to which he was recorded traveling the early afternoon of Friday, March 18.

It was a sentiment seconded in no shortage of words throughout the event—and in the voice-mail messages left with Hamaspik by grateful parents after the family-recharging event was over.

Turns out the children were hardly the only ones smiling.

The right response

Supporting children who have special needs any way you can is something Hamaspik has always done.

But supporting parents of children with special needs any way you can is also something Hamaspik has always done.

So Hamaspik simply decided to do both: Provide parents a desperately-needed full weekend of respite from caring for their precious kids, and provide a caregiving Shabbaton to those very same kids.

That was close to three months ago.

In response to the successful Shabbos respite program benefiting parents of children who attend Hamaspik of Rockland County’s After-school Respite (ASR) and Day Habilitation (Day Hab) programs (and the children, too), Hamaspik did it again.

And what an event it was!

For the kids, the best part of the Shabbaton was the Motzoei Shabbos dancing to live music, according to Hamaspik of Rockland County Day Hab Women’s Division Director Mrs. Esty Schonfeld, who attended as an all-around assistant.  Mrs. Schonfeld reports that despite the work and minimum sleep in keeping a vigilant eye on their charges, staff still had robust reserves of strength with which to make every child included in the dancing once Shabbos was over, regardless of disability.

But over the 48 hours from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning, while their beloved children were dutifully cared for, dozens of parents were treated to a long-overdue weekend of relaxation and rejuvenation.

Laying the groundwork

At 12:00 p.m. on Friday, March 18, an impressive caravan of two full-size yellow school buses and two trademark navy-blue Hamaspik Transport Vans were seen on the highways and byways of Rockland County and North Jersey as they triumphantly made their way single-file to their destination.

That caravan came to a stop less than 90 minutes later in the early afternoon—disgorging loads of happy, bouncing kids into the parking lot of the Radisson Hotel in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Longtime Special Events Coordinator Mrs. Brenda Katina was already waiting for them at the hotel, where she had been ironing out all the last-minute logistical wrinkles that invariably pop up.

As for the children, they were already well into the upbeat, ebullient mood of the weekend, having spent the bulk of the bus ride singing camp-like songs at the behest of their enthusiastic counselors.

On hand to assist Mrs. Katina was devoted Hamaspik of Rockland County ASR Director Mrs. Raizy Landau, who works lovingly with the beautiful children of her program all year long and who treats them more like children of her own than like detached students at a day job.

Mrs. Landau had put in numerous extra hours over the two weeks leading up to event, with the hardworking team leader putting in several days of overtime in the days before—seeing to it that each individual child was paired with the staff member bested suited to her or him, both for daytime chaperoning and nighttime sleeping arrangements in hotel rooms.

The children were positively thrilled to see the familiar and beloved Mrs. Landau upon entering the hotel, accompanied from the buses by their diligent counselors, who had met them at their departure points to chaperone them throughout the Shabbaton event—from the very beginning to the very end.

What’s more, the counselor body consisted of the entire ASR staff—giving guests a seamless and comfortable transition from their parents’ arms to their counselors’ care at the pickup point in Monsey on Friday at noon.

Once children had been welcomed, they were shepherded along with their luggage to their rooms, where counselors helped them unpack and settle in.

Once the kids were settled in, it was Friday-afternoon fun time: The children had the choice of making their own name tags or getting pillows adorned with their names.

Girls could also opt for custom costume jewelry at a table covered with threadable trinkets, while the little menfolk had the opportunity to make their own keychains—and both a low-cost way to make a priceless impression.

With all that out of the way, and during all that, the children could also sample fresh Shabbos food set out during the afternoon.

By the time Shabbos candles were lit at 6:52 p.m. that evening, there already was a special atmosphere in the air.  And it wasn’t just Shabbos.

Royal reception

With the arrival of the Shabbos Queen, the children enjoyed the first of several programs with their counselors in one of the hotel’s designated ballrooms.

Those programs, reports Mrs. Schonfeld, consisted of such exciting games and contests as bingo, memory games, team sing-alongs and more.

That program was followed by the Shabbaton’s first Shabbos meal that had every young attendee feeling like royalty (which, of course, they are).

After the meal, during which the young guests were encouraged to help themselves to judicious and nutritious servings of each course, the children were treated the second program of the night, an interactive contest led by the team of counselors.

And if that wasn’t enough, that was followed by a Shabbos party!

By the time it was over and bedtime had arrived, the children were ever-ready for bed—but ready for the excitement of the next day.

Getting up and going

Breakfast was served from 8:00 to 10:30 a.m.—available bright and early for those early-birds who tumbled out of bed first, accompanied by their counselors, and a bit later for sleepy-heads.  The morning meal with a repeat of the healthy choices made available on the tables.

A lengthy free play period came next in a designated ballroom-turned-playroom, where counselors both supervised from short distances and interacted one-on-one as the children enjoyed a selection of Shabbos-appropriate games and toys brought in by Hamaspik.

That was capped by the customary Shacharis morning prayer services—followed by the reading of the Torah portion of “Zachor”.  That would be a special reading of text that is traditionally attended by the entire community, including the women and children who customarily do not always attend synagogue.

By 12:00 noon, it was time for the second of the three Shabbos meals.

After that, the diminutive guests and their counselors enjoyed a lengthy rest period for relaxation, free play and socialization with peers throughout the premises.

A second Shabbos party, replete with fun and interactive songs and games, came at 3:30 p.m.

The children were then treated to rounds of board games indoors and low-impact sports outdoors, as well as another interactive group activity.

With the sun setting and the sky getting dark, it was that time of Shabbos day again for Shalosh Seudos, the third Shabbos meal.  At 6:00 p.m., the children were seated once again in the dining room for a satisfying and healthy meal.

Shalosh Seudos was ushered out with an exhilarating Picture Hunt game on the premises, which had the children eagerly scouring the nooks and crannies of the game’s designated spaces to find hidden paper images.  Picture Hunt was capped with a grand raffle.

Shabbos officially closed with the Havdalah ceremony shortly after 8:21 p.m.  But while Shabbos may have been over, the fun was only getting underway.

Purim time!

After freshening up for the evening’s festivities, the children convened once again on the dining for the Melaveh Malkah post-Shabbos meal.

With stomachs full but with hearts and souls begging for more, the guests were treated to the most exhilarating experience of the Shabbaton thus far: Live music!

Set up behind a partition for modesty purposes, a live band consisting of two singers, keyboardist and guitarist was on hand to pump merry music into the air.  With the ballroom to themselves, the staff danced with joyous abandon, goading their charges to literally jump for joy along with the high-energy sound.

With the lights turned out and special stage lighting effects filling the room along with the music, the scene was one of organized chaos, as the children and counselors waved glow-in-the-dark neon wands, sang into toy microphones, sounded tambourines, clapped along and otherwise let the music carry them away for a good two hours of musical ecstasy—a perfect warm-up for the coming Purim holiday.

“She had the time of her life. You totally outdid yourselves! And the warmth and the love that the kids felt that Shabbos—it was unbelievable!” reported one deeply grateful parent in a voice mail left with Hamaspik founder and Rockland County Executive Director Meyer Wertheimer.

“The dancing motzoei Shabbos,” she continued, “how the staff danced with the guests in wheelchairs, with the kids, to give them such a great time!  Unreal!”

Making the music even more exciting was its Purim theme—geared to get the children into the spirit of the upcoming holiday as it was, the guests and their chaperones alike felt like Purim had arrived a good few days early.

Understandably, by the time the kids went to bed, they were thoroughly spent, but for the best of reasons.

Closing ceremonies

Sunday morning opened with breakfast being served from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., with guests and staff rising at their convenience.

After the morning meal, the fun still wasn’t over, though: A cupcake-decorating workshop was the next exciting activity, giving the children something delicious to take home (or eat when no one was looking; but, of course, no one did that…).

And with Purim coming four days later, the Purim flame ignited the night before was kept burning with the Shabbaton’s final activity: A Purim “Mishloach Manos” box making activity.  The children were given art supplies, allowing them to transform ordinary containers into custom-decorated holiday holders to their whimsical delight.

With the boxes done and the tables cleared away, it was time to head back to the rooms to pack and get ready to go.

A short while later, the children were all ready, with suitcases at hand and counselors walking them out the front door.  Buses waited.

As they departed, each of the children collected a goodbye goodie bag, a little token of appreciation and not a little love from Mrs. Katina on her own behalf and behalf of the entire Hamaspik.

Still filled with exhilaration, the children bounced onto the buses, and shortly thereafter bounced into the loving arms of their fathers and mothers back home in Monsey.

Positively changed

In the days following the event, Hamaspik received several reports that the young Shabbaton guests were just not the same, and in the most positive of ways.

“I want to tell you about Yiddy’s experience this Shabbos,” began the message from Mrs. Feder, Yiddy L.’s ever-grateful and devoted legal guardian, in the voice mail box of Hamaspik of Rockland County Medicaid Service Coordinator (MSC) Mrs. Bruchy Greenwald.  “He came home so excited!”

Her charge was thrilled to share his new drawstring bag with all the goodies he had collected over the Shabbaton, including a pillow with his name on it. “He was so proud!”

He also shared the Mishloach Manos Purim package that he had prepared with his counselors at the event, handing it over to its intended recipients—his loving siblings.

But precious children like him weren’t the only ones not the same.

The mother went on to describe the relaxation and relief afforded to herself and her entire family in being able to attend a local synagogue without the challenge of her son engaging in adverse behavior in public.

Another parent called Mr. Wertheimer to report that she initially hadn’t planned to send her daughter due to preexisting plans—but that her daughter, an ASR regular, had insisted on going.

Despite it being the Wednesday before the event, the mother called Mrs. Katina to inquire about any opening.  “Of course, Brenda got to work immediately and took care of it,” she reported.

“Brenda was so sensitive” to her daughter, she continued—elaborating how her daughter had been “disappointed” over not winning a game, and how Mrs. Katina later came over to the big sister, who was also a counselor, and told her that she had an extra prize for her little sister “in case you see that she’s still upset… so much love and understanding on Brenda’s part!”

“It was just so special! I can’t thank you enough!” she exclaimed.

She also singled out Mrs. Landau for praise: “So efficient! So accommodating!”

“If you want, you can give over my message to Rabbi Wertheimer and whoever needs to hear feedback,” concluded one message.  “It was a real, real treat and thank you again so, so much, and thanks for everything that you do!”

That grateful caregiver concluded: “And I hope they do it again!”