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I Just Can’t Do It Alone: My partner in Doing Good

justcantdoalone

This is the next installation in what is based on a true story.

Names have been changed.

As winter turned to spring in 2018 and I got to understand more of Jonah’s plight, I realized I might be in over my head.

In his young life:

He had watched the tearing apart of his family. :

An oldest brother who was profoundly autistic and needed round-the-clock care.

Divorced parents at nine.

At age 13, watching his second oldest brother’s leaving his father’s home, also at age 18 to never return.

Being taken away from his mother’s care because of her own substance abuse.

Her suicide.

And then, estrangement from his dad at 18.

Each night, I had a hard time sleeping thinking about all that trauma he had yet to process.  There are many I know who have taken in shelter dogs who suffered abuse. Here I was, with no education, psychology or social work background, thinking about taking in a human. A rescue human.

Now, looking back, when I feel like a failure, I have to repeat to myself:  I, and others, about six other families before me, in fact –  we did all we could.  Every time I feel that I failed him I circle back and repeat to myself: we could not undo in three or four months what had been damaged over the course of at least 10 years of abuse and neglect.

But we sure did try.

“Why should we wait until the end of the school year? If he is not happy in his current situation, let’s get him out of there now, let’s help him.”

Enter my helper. Sabrina.* My co-grizzly bear mamma. My … well, we had another nickname for each other, another term, I’m not sharing that.

We had met up at the Riverfront on a shivering cold but sunny March morning. With about 10,000 other protesters. March for Our Lives.  The shock of the Parkland shootings were so fresh in all our minds. The wanting and need to embrace all our terrified teenagers by doing something en mass.

Sabrina is tall. Tells it like it is and straight to the point. Spiky short hair and bright blue eyes that shine out behind a collection of the most colorful, cool, mod, rad spectacles you could ever hope to pull off the look yourself but you know you wouldn’t get away with it.

I only had heart and Google at my resources. She was a licensed social worker, had worked serving her community for years in the non-profit world and knew who to call and what to do. Her son was also friends with Jonah. For years, when Jonah would ask for a ride home, Sabrina always noticed, no matter the time of day or night, Jonah would always let himself into a dark, seemingly empty home.

Before the March headed out along the river and Hart Plaza, we shot ourselves in a selfie the best two middle-aged ladies knew how. We texted it to Jonah.

“Hi Jonah. We have a plan. Let’s get together soon.”

Over the next several months, she was my partner in all this. God bless my husband for none of this would have happened, but there was enough upheaval at work for him to invest his time and increase his stress load.

So, it was Sabrina and I who were on the phone on an almost daily basis for weeks at a time, arranging meetings with social workers, school principals and administrators.  Making doctors and dentist appointments. Two Jewish moms sometimes tripping over each other to help a kid who for so long had no mom at all to go to bat for him.

As it turned out, Sabrina’s family had also offered Jonah a place to live. They had a little more room, a lot more room and food wise, did not keep a kosher home like we did.

A crash course in keeping kosher. Now there are levels of keeping kosher. Though my family is not the most strict, we do have separate dishes, pots silverware for meat and dairy. We do not mix meat and dairy. No cheeseburgers or Parmesan anything here.

We do not bring non-kosher meat into the house. There is a way to prepare food, to clean up from the food, that keeps the kitchen kosher.

Now, what non-Jewish kid who up until a few years ago had no Jewish friends would want to put up with that on a daily basis?

Not to mention access to a car.

A car. An 18-year-old teen-aged boy and access to a car. So he could get to his job as a summer camp counselor, go out with friends, have that freedom that only a car can give you.

What 18-year-old boy is going to turn that down?

Forget it, kid. I’ll still be here, but you got offered a car? Good for you.

There is no way Jonah is going to live with us after an offer like that, I thought to myself, about a week after March for our Lives.

I was getting used to the idea of having him come to live with us. More than used to. I was starting to get attached.

I had just finished an afternoon workout at the JCC. In the shower, I told myself, this is not about YOU. This cannot be taken as a personal rejection. He has to do what is best for him.

This is not a competition.

Let him go. You’ve got enough going on.

Let him go where he wants to go.

After towelling off, I checked my phone to see there was a text from my son.

“Mom, when will you be home? We have something waiting for you, it’s a big surprise!”

 

Your kid’s friend gets kicked out and has nowhere else to go. What would you do?

Nation Mourns Victims Of Worst Mass Shooting In U.S. History

All what I am going to tell you in this post and subsequent posts is true. Or based on the truth.

At least that is what he told me.

Only the names are made up. …..

Every time I drive downtown on the John C. Lodge and get off at Forest Ave. he is there. 
Right at the top of the off ramp. 
Sitting with his cardboard sign: Homeless. Please help. 
And, like most of us, all of us who have been in this situation, you try not to make eye contact. 
You wrestle with your conscious in the heated seat of your car waiting for the light to change so you can get going, get away from the guilt. 
But lately, I’ve got to wonder:  how many people tried to reach out, to turn this person’s life around, how many pleads were there to get help, to seek counseling, until attempt after attempt, family, friends, just threw their hands up and just gave up? 
How many times did he refuse to get help? What leads a person to the point where they are left begging for money from the off ramp of the Lodge? 

“Mom,  Dad, can Jonah move in with us?”

It was a sunny March morning, a day like it is today.

The icicles were melting and even though the windows were closed, you could hear the cardinals and even yes robins chirping with their promise. Winter is ending. Spring is coming.

The three of us sat around the Sunday breakfast table with homemade waffles and although I had asked him many times not to, my son’s phone was present at the table, his fingers poised over the screen, as if ready to text Jonah yes or no.

As if making a decision to have a troubled kid move into our house and into our life was as simple a decision as syrup or jelly.

“Woah”  My husband and I both said. “This is NOT something to rush into.”

Jonah since Christmas break had been spending lots of time with us, including a family-only celebration dinner for my husband’s 50th Birthday. Plus Shabbat dinners. I had even sent him back to his current host family with quarts of chicken soup when he was sick. As a return favor, he helped along with my kids shovel our driveway a couple of times. I watched them all work together and then shoot some basketballs into the underused net in the icy darkness when the work was done.

We had seen Jonah’s talents at work on the weekends during forensics meets.  I thought after Christmas break was over and the grind of school picked up, we’d be seeing less of Jonah but instead the opposite was happening. He really seemed to like being around our clan. He got along with my older kids when they were home from college, and when they went back, we actually welcomed the company of another kid hanging around to break up the quiet of an only child household.

The family he was living with across town since his 18th birthday had made the arrangement that he would live with them until graduation, and that was it.

So, there we were, in March, my son’s fingers poised above his phone.

Yes, or no?

Now, at the time, there was a feeling in this country of distrust. Of shock. After all, just weeks ago, had not a troubled young man in Florida, also estranged from his family and living with another family, just gunned down 17 of his classmates and teachers in Parkland?

But Jonah showed no traits of social isolation or violence.  He showed no signs of bitterness or anger. He was outgoing. He was a student leader. He had good grades, stellar grades in fact.

He was just homeless.

And though he did have family and a father, they all seemed to be out of the picture. Financially and emotionally.

He had no health insurance.

And in his short life he had endured multiple traumas.

And he was not quite sure where he was headed to college. Or, since his father was withholding his 529, and he was not at this point 100 percent sure that he was getting full rides because of his situation, how he was going to pay for it.

And we already had three children to care for.

But here was my son, with a heart of gold, who wanted to help his friend.  With his fingers ready to text back

yes

or no.

And here I was with my Jewish values of remembering the orphan and the stranger.

So, after we cleaned up from the waffles, and telling my son that we could not make such a decision so quickly, I set to work.

I was not quite ready to take him in, but I wanted to help.

Over the next week, I dedicated most of my time digging for resources while wondering at the same time how a kid in suburbia could fall through the cracks seemingly with no safety net.

First, I reached out to local social service agencies to explain the situation and set up an appointment to see how to help a homeless young adult with seemingly no family support. 

I contacted friends who were doctors who directed me to resources and agencies that could help him obtain access to health insurance through Medicaid. I also asked them what Medicaid plans their practice accepted. My first priority was to get him a thorough check up. At this point, we were not even sure if his immunizations were up to date.

I contacted friends who were attorneys who had access to court cases and could attain copies of his parent’s divorce settlements to see what the father was legally obligated to provide.

I uncovered resources such as the Ruth Ellis Center in Ann Arbor that provided shelter and services to gay kids who had nowhere else to go.

I found an LGBTQ drop in center that, when he was ready, was a place to find emotional support and advocacy as he began his journey. And I would have gone with him too, if we got that far.

I contacted Equality to see if our young friend possibly had a legal case of being parental abandonment or neglect.  

I contacted an agency that could provide him with mental health counseling as well as possibly subsidized housing where he could live on his own in the summer and on breaks from college.  Sure, I thought, legally he was an adult and could live on his own in an apartment, but how does that help him emotionally? 

I bought a steno notebook and with each resource I found, I jotted it down on its own page, complete with a phone number and a website and a contact who had kindly spent time on the phone with me who was awaiting his call to reach out.

I left enough pages between each contact so Jonah could take his own notes as he and I would create a plan of attack to get the pieces of his life together before he transitioned off to college. 

I entitled it the “Jonabook.”

Before we made the big decision to take him in, I thought this was the least I could do for this young man. Because of his age and legal adult status, there was little more I could do on his behalf outside of presenting him with the information and hoping he would run with it.

And, months later, I would be reminded of that when, on the phone with his case worker at Health and Human Services going through the hoops to attain his Medicaid card, he would gently, but firmly close the door to his bedroom in my face, as he mouthed with a smile, shooing me away:

I got this. I’m okay. I can handle this.

Lastly, I contacted the family where Jonah was staying to see just why they were no longer going to put him up after the school year.

Why would a family only keep a kid for a finite amount of time? What was going on here?

The woman said that Jonah was polite, considerate. There was no deviant behavior, no drug or alcohol use, they just could not work him into their summer plans.

But she said there was something.. off. A constant smile. A wall they could not get through when they asked him how he was doing, how he was coping, he would just smile and say everything was okay.

“He’s a good kid,”  the woman said, who for the last 7 months had let Jonah live with her family at the request of her daughter.

Because of a desperate plea she heard from him at the lunch table just three weeks before his 18th birthday that he had nowhere else to go.

“He just needs help.”

 

 

 

Born this way: Some Statistics on LGBT youth

helpThink about the last time you were out.

In the produce section at the grocery store.

A restaurant.

If you are lucky and live somewhere warm this time of year, maybe you were out at a park or a sandy beach.

All around us in these places, we can see small, tender moments of parents parenting their children, and you can tell a lot about the parent-child bond at the grocery store.  When it comes to being a parent, it’s all those little moments – not the graduations or birthday parties or fancy summer vacation – that make the parent-child bond so precious and special.

And crucial to that child as they become an adult.

Sometimes you will see a parent or older adult, maybe a grandma or grandpa, bending down to gently remind a child to be mindful of cars in a busy parking lot.

Sometimes it’s not great parenting, like when fussy toddlers are given mom’s iPhone instead of a toy or a book just so she can get through the grocery store without later requiring a Valium. Not the best parenting, but parenting nonetheless.  No judging there.  I get it.

There are small moments like when a younger mom or dad will talk to their kids as they go up and down the aisles, kids happy and content or screaming their heads off . Tiny, small moments of caring.

Or, when the kids are older, parents and kids may be picking out together what to make for the week’s meals. Or what the team may want as a post-game snack.

At the park, a mom or dad may be pushing their little one on a swing. Cooing at them as they lift their kids high above their heads as they listen to their little ones shriek with delight.

Or, sitting quietly in a waiting room, a movie theater, on a bus, safely cuddling a child on their lap or supporting a sleepy head on their shoulder.

Every child when they are grown should have a parent or relative or grown up in their life that can look into their eyes and remember the small child that they were during those moments and cherish the adult they are becoming.

How can they not?

That’s not the case for some kids who come out to their parents. No, that’s not the case at all. And I don’t know how they can shed all that cut off their love and close the door.

If your child came out, could you still hold onto those little moments of parenting, and realize they are the same kid inside and who trusted you enough to tell you something that is the core of their identity and now needs your love and parenting more than ever?

This is what it looks like when parents do. 

My family happened to cross paths with a kid whose family, unfortunately, did not offer that love and support.

Some grim facts and statistics coming up here.

Homelessness in LGBT youth is on the rise. Of all the demographics of why youth become homeless, the group that is seeing the biggest jump is those who come out as LGBT and who are rejected by their parents.

Up to 1.6 million young people experience homelessness in the United States every year. Forty percent of them identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender), according to a 2012 study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law.

According to PFLAGNYC, 

  • Gay teens are 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide and 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.
  • LGBT youth who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence are three times more likely to use illegal drugs.
  • Half of gay males experience a negative parental reaction when they come out and in 26% of those cases the youth was thrown out of the home.
  • Studies indicate that between 25% and 50% of homeless youth are LGBT and on the streets because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • LGBT youth are overrepresented in foster care, juvenile detention, and among homeless youth.

Whatever happened between Jonah and us this year, and whatever will happen one day, I regret nothing, because I wasn’t having any of that on my watch if I could help it.

What I of me was not a statistic. What I had in front of me was a shattered heart.

On a warm afternoon in May, what should have been the beginning of a  night of celebration for district-wide extracurricular success,  I didn’t need statistics to show me what parental rejection does.

All the proof I needed was that I had a 18-year-old who was crying as he sat on the side of a bed.

The bed that belonged to my son who had given it up, along with his room to live in the basement for the summer, because this kid did not or would not live with his father because he did not feel safe. Or loved.

I had a kid, who after finding out his father had called me to have a rather unpleasant conversation with me, just upon hearing his father’s voice coming from the receiver for under a minute, that was all it took to set him off.

What does he want from me?

He had just been accepted with a full scholarship to three prestigious colleges.

I can’t help it.

My son and I sat with him on the bed trying to calm him down as he shook and cried. It took a full 30 minutes before we could all pull it together and get on with our evening’s plans.

I did not choose to be this way. I did nothing wrong. Why won’t he just leave me alone? 

 

 

What Does Neglect in Suburbia Look Like?

This is based on a true story. Names have been changed. help

 

“Mom, Jonah really likes coming over for dinner.”

Elias told me on a dark winter night early last January.

A year had passed, and so had another high school musical season. This time, my son was now in high school and Jonah, a senior, had been in another musical together and were now at the beginning of forensics season.

No, we’re not talking CSI-styled forensics. No, this was not about a bunch of high school kids investigating the scene of a crime.  Forensics, when taken from its original Latin,  forensis means ‘in open court, public’, from forum. Say forensics to any high school kid in the midwest, and they know it’s all about speaking, oratory and acting competitions that take place in the winter and spring months.

More on forensics later.

Back to the kitchen we go.

So, I was in the kitchen making dinner. Dark and cold and snowy outside.  School had been in full swing now for a few weeks after a two-week Christmas/winter break.

Jonah was now living with another family in the school district, who had traveled without him over winter break, which meant that Jonah spent a lot of time during that break alone.

Alone was a thing that Jonah had grown accustomed to, since about the age of nine.

But after having him over for several family dinners with not only my youngest but my son and daughter home on college break, including his first Shabbat dinner with homemade chicken soup and challah, and another special birthday dinner for my husband, I think he started to realize what he had been missing out on all these years.

Outside of hanging around the kitchen table, I was getting to know Jonah through various outings, like the time over MLK weekend when my son and I went out with him to see a movie and go for dinner at the nearby mega mall.

“Mom, Jonah said before he came over here for dinner, he never really had a home cooked meal.”

To this day, I cannot wrap my brain around that sentence.

To me. food, especially prepared my grandmothers and mothers and aunts (and YES I know there are men and uncles and dads who cook, but not in my family) and then eating that food as a family, is the foundation of loving family bonds and relationships.

An absence of that, that was the first real sign to me of the extent of Jonah’s neglect.

Over time, I learned that when he lived with his mother, who was a substance abuser, Jonah and his brother had mostly survived on eating cereal for dinner. Or a can of tuna.  Or PB & J sandwiches.Or hot dogs.

To this day, if offered a hot dog, he’d politely turn it down for something else.

Over time, I learned  Jonah lived with his father full time because of his mother’s substance abuse. Jonah said his father expected him to cook dinner.

Nothing wrong with that in different situations.

I started cooking in middle school for my family when my mom went back to work, but only after years of learning by mom and grandma’s side, and mom would prep meals more than halfway and leave me copious notes on the kitchen table when I got home from school. And, considering how broken Jonah’s family situation was, some home cooked meals provided by his dad could have provided that nurturing he needed.

Basic rule: If you are a parent, it’s your job to provide meals for your kid. Leaving raw meat in the fridge and expecting your kid to cook it doesn’t cut it.

Worse yet, according to the story, his dad would leave him and take off for the weekend or the week with his new girlfriend, without leaving a contact number or a family member to look after him. Was his big brother still around at this point? I cannot remember the timeline just right.

So, from the getgo, Jonah said he prided himself on being a “DIY” kind of guy. He had basically raised and cared for himself. Since around age 9 or 10.

And somewhere in this timeline, he had made calls to Child Protective Services, both at his mother’s and father’s homes. But upon inspection of his father’s home, located in a nice, upper middle class subdivision cul de sac with food in the fridge and pantry, CPS found nothing to be wrong.

 

What does neglect look like to peers in the halls of an upper middle class high school?

It might be hard to detect. Jonah was always nicely dressed with the clothes he had purchased with his own money working two jobs. He had saved every receipt in hopes of getting this money back somehow.. from someone or some lawsuit?

… Maybe his shoes were worn, because he’d been wearing them since the seventh grade. But other than that, he always was nicely dressed.

But when it comes to one’s health, friends of the neglected may start to notice, especially when these friends compete with you in forensics. Jonah may not have had family bonds, but his friends became his family.

The multiple team rehearsed after school every day. I realize it now that my son’s team practiced maybe more than most because Jonah was the director. In his chaotic teen years, perhaps he felt this was the one place he could be in complete control of every scene block, every plot twist.

Indeed, during the season, multiple team members often make each other the center of their lives, with all the teen drama, for the duration of forensics season, which runs from late December auditions until the end of April with state finals.

When multiples spend most of their free time together after school rehearsing, all day on Saturdays and sometimes, sleep overs and parties on Saturday nights and then of course, brunch on Sundays, someone is bound to get sick. And if one gets sick, the rest are bound to catch it.

A few years back, when Jonah had a hacking cough and fever and his dad had instructed to pray it away, a forensics teammate was so worried about him that she pleaded her mother to drop off some OTC cough medicine at his house.

And she did. Only to get called into the office that week by his father and counselor for a rash scolding. The father telling the mother to stay out of his business.

Flash forward to the winter of 2018. It was a particularly deadly strain of influenza was going around if you can recall.

Perfectly healthy, young people being struck horribly ill, or even dying from it.

Health care professionals urging all to get their flu shots.

Since turning 18 and living independently from his father, Jonah had figured out a lot for himself. Even FAFSA! (We’ll get to that in another post).

One thing he didn’t have access to, and didn’t have time to figure it out, was access to healthcare.

Since his estrangement from his dad, he had no health insurance. Not like his dad took him to doctors. Or believed in keeping up with immunizations.

One night last winter, Jonah came to sleep over. He was coughing pretty badly.

I felt his forehead. It was pretty hot. But he refused to take any medication, not even Advil.

“As it is,” he shrugged it off with a laugh, “My family has very strong immune systems, and we just fight it off, whatever it is, and we eventually get better.”

I expressed my concern and his need to see his pediatrician right away.

“You can’t afford to wait it out, Jonah, this could get very bad. You have to get better and see your doctor, they’ll give you a flu shot.”

Problem is, he told me, he had no doctor, and no access to healthcare.

To this I just shook my head.

It was very generous and kind of the family who took him in, considering they hardly knew him or his family situation. But, did it not trouble them that he had no access to healthcare?

How could they let him use their car, but not care if he has health insurance? Was he under their auto insurance policy?

I mean, what if he got in a car accident?

What if he needed an emergency appendectomy?

What if his cough is bronchitis or pneumonia and he just needs an antibiotic?

What if, and who even knows if his immunizations are up to date?

What if… and what if… other horrible scenarios played out in my mind. I am a Jewish mother, after all.

So, at that point,  on a cold January Saturday night, what could I do?

The night went on and Jonah’s cough got worse. Finally, Elias came up from where they were crashing in the basement and said Jonah needed some relief.

Mr. DIY gave in to my maternal suggestion.  I think I gave him some OTC cough suppressant. Or NyQuil. Or something.

To cut the fever and the cough.  To make it better.

All this time, I just wanted to make him better. 

The next morning, I sent him back to where he was staying with two quarts of my homemade chicken soup.

Because at that point, before he lived under my roof, that really was all I could do.

So what is the difference between a kid who is cared for and not cared for in the suburbs?

The difference is, the other kids have parents or even a loving guardian to take care of them if they got sick.

The other kids had doctors.

And Jonah at 18 had no living memory of seeing a doctor. Ever.

That’s neglect.

Next up: Some statistics on LGBT youth

What do you Say??

Nathanhopcat

My first short-lived job out of college I worked for a small weekly newspaper in a rural county in New Jersey.  So rural that the grounds for the county fair, complete with livestock competitions with pigs and cows,  was right out the back door of the newsroom.

That weekend, the staff worked a booth to promote the paper and increase circulation. I was in charge of blowing up helium balloons and handing them out to children who stopped by to visit.

With each child I gave a balloon, parents were sure to ask that child in a prodding manner:

“What do you say?”

It seems the thing you teach your kid to say, that kindest phrase, cannot be said enough in life.

Just saying thank you. Showing gratitude for every experience, some good, some not so good, but recognizing that each moment teaches and shapes you.

In addition to nurturing this practice in our children, for saying thank you for getting material things when they are younger, we hope that as our kids grow into adults, they keep saying it for the intangible things too.

So there I was, out at the Crofoot, a nightclub in Pontiac, Mich.,  trying to make eye contact with my 17-year-old son as he opened for touring folk-rock bands The Mountain Babies and The Cactus Blossoms, mouthing the words:

WHAT DO YOU SAY?

Now, I am not saying that he did not say thank you to his audience, or to the headlining band. But you just can’t say it enough.

This is the summer that my 17-year old son, soon to be a high school senior, truly hustled to get out his music as a solo guitarist and songwriter.  The band that he and his mates tried so hard to get off the ground during sophomore and junior year never took off. There were too many conflicts. Too many SAT prep classes and cross-country meets. Too many mothers filling up weekends with family obligations.

This summer, he did not get a job at Kroger, or Old Navy, or a summer day camp. It was not from a lack of trying.

What he did get were a few paid gigs.

So I just want to say, thank you.

Thank you to the Teen Council of Detroit and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit for fostering creativity through your rap and songwriting workshops, your uncensored teen Open Mike nights.

Thank you to the Farmington Civic Theater for letting my son busk  (yes, this is a verb that you learn when you know a starving up and coming musician) on a couple of Friday nights for dollar bills and pocket change, and a free drink and two movie tickets.

Thank you to Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak and all the tea sipping folks there who listened and cheered for my son on open mike nights.

Thank you to The Hopcat who, though he was underage, let my son open up your open mike night a little early at your upstairs bar before he had to get thrown out.  And, of course, thank you for Crack Fries.

And all along the way, I am thankful for the friends here, people I did not have in my life only three short years ago since moving to Detroit, who not only have come out to hear him play, but who ask me when he is playing next.

So, my son, I know you are never more comfortable than when you are up on stage playing, but when you are up there, you know what to say, and you cannot say it enough. Plug the band for whom you are opening. Give praise to your audience. You just cannot do it enough.

While I’m at it, I would be humbly thankful if you check out my son’s music here.

 

 

Justice Justice you Can Pursue, through PeerCorps

This winter, the headlines have been filled with two bleak stories coming out of Michigan: The Flint water crisis and the crisis in Detroit Public Schools.

At the center of both stories, the ones hurt the most are kids. Our kids.

In the sick-outs of Detroit, teachers have rightly refused to teach in buildings with overcrowded classrooms, schools that have no heat, or mold, or infested with rodents.  They are doing this not for selfishness but they believe that their students deserve better.

This winter,  Michigan made international news because of Flint.  There is now confirmation that state workers purchased gallon after gallon of purified water to drink iin their offices as recently as January 2015 as they assured Flint residents that the water coming out of their own tap was safe to drink.  It is a pretty safe bet that every child in Flint will have some degree of lead poisoning – poisoining that will forever alter their ability to learn and develop normally.

These two stories scream out injustice towards the poorest and powerless population in our state: black kids and their families.

Is it any wonder that we then hear the cries of injustice and the charges of systematic environmental racism? It is hard to turn a blind eye or ear to injustices put upon our children.

You may say: “Wait a minute, not my kid. Those are someone else’s kids. We live somewhere with great schools and wouldn’t you know it,  but we can actually drink and brush our teeth and bathe with the water coming out of our tap.”

But these kids indeed are our kids. They live right up the road in the same state.

This year, my suburban kid is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah. His Torah reading has one of the most significant lines in the whole Torah: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice you shall pursue.

Justice. So important it had to be said not once but twice. How do you pursue it? How can one person, one kid, living in a nice suburban cul de sac world, face down injustices that have gone on for decades? What can really one person do?

Sitting pretty here in suburban Detroit, it is pretty easy get comfortable in our isolation, our separateness or “otherness” from those living in our urban cores. I have come to know something after living in the Detroit ‘burbs for almost three years: the disconnect between urban and suburban, between the haves and have nots is palpable.

Sitting pretty here in suburbia can make one feel powerless to turn the injustices around.  And downright angry. But sitting around will do nothing. We may not be able to solve everything, but we have to contribute and try something.

There are bridges we can build, and one, in fact, is built right in with PeerCorps Detroit.  PeerCorps is a year-long mentorship program inviting Jewish teens, b’nai mitzvah students and their families from all denominations to build deep relationships with one another and perform community-based work in Detroit.

Last year, my son participated in one Track  of Peer Corps’ community building work in Detroit. Every other week, he would trek with a van full of other middle schoolers and their high-school aged mentors to the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit. There, he helped out with the younger kids in after-school care, played with them, read to them and most of all, got to know different kids in a different part of the city and to realize they all like to do the same things together.

This year, as he studies for his Bar Mitzvah reading which concentrates on pursuing justice, he will be tutoring elementary-age kids with Mission:City.

These are just two areas in where Peer Corps is building bridges into Detroit and doing what we can to let people living in the city know that someone cares and, however seemingly small a step we are making, we are trying to make it a step in the right direction.

To learn more about Peer Corps, come to Gesher Day at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue on Sunday, Feb. 28 to find out here how you and your middle-schooler can be a bridge between urban and suburban Detroit.

 

 

Perfect Prom

How can it be? Prom season has come and gone. My kids’ included. I’ll be writing more about that in the near future, about prom, about when to let their kids stretch their independence, and when to step in and protect when it comes to the literal roads of life, and boy is it hard to distinguish the difference. 

In the meantime, for a little while longer, let them enjoy the innocence of being a kid and read a story of how some high school kids reached out to fellow students who never dreamed about going to prom and how they had the time of their lives.

It was a pleasure to write this one in the midst of making arrangements for my own child’s prom night. It was a pleasant surprise to find out it had made it to a cover story:

Perfect Prom

Posted on June 10, 2015, 12:29 PM . Filed in Uncategorized. Tagged . Be the first to comment!

A night to cherish —for students of all abilities

Spencer Cohn of West Bloomfield had his heart set on going to his prom to seal his lasting memories of high school with a fun night out on the town. He knew just whom he wanted to ask, and with the help of a teacher and supportive friends, he had a night to remember at West Bloomfield High School’s Senior Prom, held at the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle in Detroit.

Going to prom was also a dream come true for Spencer’s mom, Melanie Cohn. Like all parents raising kids with special needs, the thing she wanted most for her son was acceptance by his peers.

“When you have a child on the autism spectrum, you always feel like your kids are on the outside,” said Melanie, who is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Farmington Hills. “When I found out there was a way that Spencer could go to prom, I was so pleased. He went and felt accepted as part of a group of friends. Isn’t that how we all want to feel?”

Six couples show their prom spirit before heading off to the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle for the big dance.

This acceptance in part came from a course offered in several area high schools called LINK. Also known as Peer-to-Peer Support, LINK is a course where general education students assist students with learning disabilities in classroom and social settings. The course’s goals include improving social, independence and/or academic skills for students with disabilities as well as helping students in the general population develop an understanding of individuals with disabilities. Students who enroll in the course may eventually pursue careers in social work, teaching or psychology.

For about three years now, through LINK, WBHS seniors with special needs have been transported to prom in their own limousine bus, thanks to a generous anonymous donor in the Jewish community.

Spencer’s prom date was Dalia Rubenstein, 16, a WBHS junior who took the LINK course this spring semester. Volunteering with those with special developmental needs comes naturally for her. Ever since she could remember, she has accompanied her mother, Shoshana Rubenstein, ACSW, to help out at JARC events for adults.

Through LINK, Dalia gained experience with learning how to more patiently interact with teens on the Autism spectrum and not to “rush to judgment” when conversations do not go exactly as planned. For example, sarcasm does not go over very well to those with very literal minds.

“You have to watch what you say, especially if you want to joke around,” Dalia said. “Sarcasm doesn’t work so you have to say exactly what you mean.”

Harry Cohn adjusts his son’s tie before he heads off to the WBHS prom.

Though their families had been friends for many years, Dalia became better acquainted with Spencer through LINK.

“People dream about going to the prom because it is the highlight of high school,” Dalia said. So, when he asked me, I said, ‘Of course, I would love to go with you!’ Since then, he hasn’t stopped smiling and talking about the prom.”

After Spencer asked Dalia, she asked a few of her friends — some were part of LINK, others were not — if they would like to go to prom with other kids with special needs. Altogether, six couples dressed up, met in the school parking lot to have their parents kvell over them and take their photographs before they boarded the limo bus to prom.

Even though he prefers wearing shorts and a T-shirt most of the time, Spencer sported a tuxedo for the occasion. He said Dalia looked “great” in her navy blue prom dress. He gave her a white corsage. At his request, Dalia gave Spencer two picture frames: one to hold a picture of them at the prom and one saved for a graduation photo.

Dalia Rubenstein and Spencer Cohn

“It was pretty fancy at the yacht club and I loved the music,” Spencer said the day after prom. “I wanted to go to prom because I knew it was going to be a great memory to have forever from my senior year of high school.”

Accompanying them on the limo bus was Janis Schiffer, a school social worker and a coordinator of the LINK program. Schiffer said that these couples going to prom together is proof positive of how LINK bridges the gap between students of all abilities.

In the end, Schiffer knew her students with special needs were in good hands with their LINK buddies at the prom. She didn’t need to be with them at all times to be their “friend.” Instead, she was present at the prom just like any other adult chaperone, hanging in the background and watching the kids having fun.

“I was overjoyed to see them all having a wonderful time,” Schiffer said. “After a while, you really couldn’t tell which of the kids had special needs and which didn’t. It is just what one would expect from prom night.”

By: Stacy Gittleman, Contributing Writer

The Future is Bright for Detroit’s Conservative Jews. Motor City Youth Group is “Chapter of the Year”

When I taught Hebrew school and looked at the sweet yet glazed-over faces of my students, I would gently yet firmly reassure them: “KIds, please. I get it. Hebrew school may not be your thing. But don’t ever let your feelings about Hebrew school cloud your love for being Jewish. There is a better Jewish life after Hebrew school and it is youth group.”

Personally, I owe my life to United Synagogue Youth’s high school and middle school programming. Whether it was learning how to do The Time Warp or Rock Lobster at a dance, or finally mastering the WHOLE Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) while singing it with hundreds of my closest friends, It taught me how to life Jewishly joyfully. Kudos to the Motor City Chapter of USY for winning for the second year in a row Chapter of the Year for the organization’s Central region. 

This ran in the May 21, 2015 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Please subscribe.

Motor City USY wins honor for second year running

| Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer

Recently recognized by the Central Region of United Synagogue Youth for membership growth and inter-generational religious programming such as “McKabbalat Shabbat,” members of Detroit’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth recently arrived home from their regional spring convention in Cleveland bleary-eyed yet happy to have clinched the “Chapter of the Year” award for the second year running.

Motor City USY, affectionately known as “MCUSY,” is witnessing a resurgence in membership growth and dynamic programming designed to engage and energize the youngest members of Metro Detroit’s Conservative Jewish movement.

The chapter has attracted about 65 official members in grades 6-12, and a little over 100 individuals have attended at least one USY or Kadima program in the past year, according to adviser David Lerner. Highlights of the year included a Purim limousine scavenger hunt, monthly volunteering at bingo games with adults with developmental disabilities in cooperation with JARC, and an “Iron Chef ” kosher cooking contest for students in the middle school grades.ironchef

The Conservative movement in Detroit has invested much in its youth engagement and informal education in the last several years with its Ramah Fellowship and by hiring a full-time USY adviser. For the past two years, this post was filled by David Lerner. Lerner is stepping down from his post, and this summer will begin his rabbinical studies at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
david-lerner
“I have been so inspired working with the teens and witnessing their passion and ability to form a community around Jewish life and values,” Lerner, 32, said.
“I have merely served as the facilitator and supporter to all their passion and great ideas. They have worked hard through their frustrations to create so many positive outcomes over the past two years.”

Lerner hopes the organization will choose a new adviser who has an established relationship with the organization and can continue its upward direction.

In the last two years, Lerner said he focused on growing and strengthening programming and outreach at the high school level. In coming years, he said the focus should be on growing the organization’s Kadima group for grades 6-8 and Junior Kadima for grades 3-5.

Local area Conservative rabbis also place a high value on the way USY blends social and religious aspects to get teens enthused about Judaism.
Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills attributes the chapter’s recent success to collaboration across all of Detroit’s Conservative synagogues and professional staff who are connected and invested in the teens.

Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield — where Lerner also worked as director of youth and young adult programming — echoed this sentiment of working together to create meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and fostering friendships for teens.

“As Conservative Jews, we are committed to developing passionate, educated young adults devoted to finding spirituality within Jewish ritual, meaning within Jewish life, and a commitment to repairing our broken world,” Starr said.
“Most of all, the teens who are part of MCUSY are exceptional leaders and, in them, I see a bright future for the Jewish people.”

Jacklawson MCUSYchapterofyear

West Hills Middle Schooler is all Smiles about helping Special Needs Children

lindseyWith an astute understanding of the power of delivering a smile, Lindsey Zousmer, a fifth-grader at West Hills Middle School, has got “magic” to do for disabled children receiving physical therapy at local hospitals.

Last month, she started a community service project called “Projects 4 Smiles” and is asking other kids her age to create small craft projects, such as bookmarks, bracelets or pins to give as gifts of encouragement.

To kick off Project 4 Smiles, Zousmer invited WHMS classmates in the fourth and fifth grades to come to school on Jan. 16 wearing funny hats and donating a dollar for supplies. Commun ity members may also donate any extra craft supplies they may have at home: decorative duct tape, buttons, extra scrapbooking supplies, glitter, beads, glue, markers, cardstock or string will do the trick. Drop off these supplies at the office at West Hills Middle School, 2601 Lone Pine Road in West Bloomfield, where a special Project 4 Smiles box has been set aside.

The idea came to Zousmer after shadowing her mother Stacy Agree Zousmer, a pediatric physical therapist, at work at Beaumont Hospitals on days she had no school. It was there that she watched children with disabilities struggle to accomplish simple tasks that most children her age can do with ease.

“My mom explained to me how some of these kids can be very successful even with the disabilities and/or the conditions they have,” Lindsey wrote in a letter to the entire West Hills Middle School community. “We want to encourage them and make them aware that they are just as capable as we are.”

Ultimately, she wants to collect enough crafted gifts and then video or photograph the expression of joy on the children’s faces to show her classmates back at school “just how happy they can make others when they give a small gift.”

The project is a product of Bloomfield Schools’ Primary Years Programme (PYP), which engages children in the district’s primary grades to be socially aware and responsible through action. Kathy Janelle, the district’s PYP coordinator, explained “education must extend beyond the intellectual to include not only socially responsible attitudes, but also thoughtful and appropriate action.”

Stacy Agree Zousmer saw how important it was for her own children to meet her patients and also to volunteer at the Friendship Circle.

Lindsey’s family extends many generations in Detroit. She is a descendant of the founders of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, who established the congregation on the principles of social consciousness.  She attends religious school at Temple Israel, where she learned about the Jewish obligation to help those in need through g’milut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. In her letter, she said her mom serves as her biggest example for caring for others.

“Not only is Lindsey a natural caretaker, but she also finds common interests with these kids because they are her peers,” her mom says. “She loves to help them realize their potential and feel good about themselves. At the young age of 10, Lindsey is truly beginning to understand what it means to pay it forward.”

Got a Sweet Tooth and a Big Heart: Attend Camp Mak-A-Dream Benefit Oct 16 at the Somerset Collection

image 8Was honored to write this piece that appeared in the October 9, 2014 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. I hope I did right by the young lady featured in this story, who, attended Camp Mak-A-Dream for three summers. Catherine is now a student at Arizona State. who has become a champion for speaking out and speaking for coping with living with brain cancer. 

 

When Catherine Blotner of West Bloomfield was 17, she underwent a risky brain surgery procedure to remove a benign yet deep and invasive brain tumor that for years was causing seizures and threatened her vision and hearing. The doctors said the surgery could cause permanent speech and cognitive loss, and even the loss of her ability to walk.

Now, Blotner is 19 and a student at Arizona State University studying family and human development.  Not only did she keep her ability to speak, she is a blogger and founder of #btsm (brain tumor social media), a monthly Twitter chat open to anyone seeking resources on treating brain tumors.  Neurologists and healthcare professionals seek her out for speaking engagements and conferences focused on people coping with brain illnesses. On the back of her business card: her twitter handle – @cblotner, plus a photo of an MRI of her brain.

Her mother, Ann Blotner, attributes her daughter’s confidence, coping strength, and leadership qualities in part to the summers she spent as a camper at Camp Mak-A-Dream –  a free camp under the big skies of Montana for children and young  adults with cancer.  She has been both a camper and a counselor there, including the weeks leading up to her life- altering surgery.

“Through Camp Mak-a-Dream, Catherine has become confident and connected into a supportive network of healthcare professionals as well as a peer group who are going through similar health challenges that have changed their lives,” said Ann.

The Michigan Chapter of FRIENDS OF CAMP MAK-A-DREAM hosts its “sweet” 16th annual   “Cookies n’ Dreams” fundraiser 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16 at the Somerset Collection in Troy. Food, beverages, entertainment and activities for all ages will be provided throughout the evening.  Admission for adults is $60; children under 17 pay their age and children 3 and under are free. For more information go to Camp Mak-A-Dream

According to Peter Grimes, the organization’s executive director, the long-standing event has attracted “eager sponsors” and area bakers donating hundreds of cookies as well as their confectionary time and expertise to the family-friendly event.  The bake-off expects to draw 600 attendees and raise at least $130,000. Funds raised in Michigan pay for the camping and transportation costs for 70 children from Michigan. Grimes added that former campers like Blotner come back to volunteer as young adults and offer support to the campers through talks and workshops.

The camp was founded by Sylvia and the late Harry Granader of Beverly Hills, Mich. Granader owned several McDonald’s restaurants and founded several Michigan-area Ronald McDonald houses. He donated 87 acres of Montana ranch land to build a camp especially created for children and young adults facing life-threatening diseases such as cancer and brain tumors. The camp welcomed its first campers in 1995. Since then it has hosted more than 6000 children and young adults, offering typical camping activities such as swimming, a ropes course, archery, hiking, arts & crafts as well as a state of the art medical center, staff and volunteers to allow the campers to get cancer treatment while they are at camp.

 

Hadar Granader of Bloomfield Hills wishes to carry on his brother’s legacy of granting sick children a summer out in nature where “no child will feel embarrassed or laughed at because of their illness.”

“Life is especially hard for kids with cancer because they become cut off from everyday life and healthy kids have a hard time relating to them,” Granader said. “At Camp-Mak-a-Dream, children with cancer get to bond and share memories and friendships that help sustain them long after the summer is over.”

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