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What Volunteering at Gateways Can Do: Alanna's Story

March 25, 2021

volunteer and student studying Hebrew

Before Alanna came to Gateways, she had always known on some level that she wanted to work with kids. However, it was the three formative years she spent volunteering with Gateways' Jewish Education Program that ignited Alanna's passion for disability inclusion and led her on the path to a career in elementary and special education.

Like many other teen volunteers, Alanna found Gateways through Prozdor, the local supplementary Jewish high school. When it came time to pick out her classes one fall, she and some friends signed up for a class called "Intro to Gateways." They weren't exactly sure what it was, but the prospect of learning more about disability education was interesting, and they thought they'd give it a try. One Sunday, Prozdor bussed the class over to see the Gateways Jewish Education Program in action, and Alanna and her friends knew they had picked the right class. They applied the next week to join the Teen Volunteer Program.

Every Sunday morning for the following three years, Alanna woke up early to come volunteer in the Gateways Sunday Program. Even years later, Alanna's face still lights up when she talks about the two students she worked with and the bonds that she formed with them. Her first student, with whom she worked for two years, was preparing for her Bat Mitzvah with Gateways, and Alanna played a critical role in that preparation. Alanna declares that the day that she finally got to attend her student's Bat Mitzvah was the best day of her senior year of High School. This student was anxious when they began working together and had rarely shown interest in speaking up in class, Alanna explains. For this student, standing confidently on the bimah, leading services, chanting Torah and Haftarah, and delivering her D'var Torah was a remarkable achievement. Alanna remembers sitting in the front row at the synagogue, shedding tears of pride and happiness. "She was so perfect and so confident...there was not a dry eye in that room," Alanna recalls.

Alanna's experience with her second Gateways student, though different, was every bit as special. This student needed more hands-on support, as he was often nonverbal, and struggled to regulate his emotions. Alanna speaks warmly of the connection that she shared with him, reflecting that "The fact that he had a lot of hard days made the good ones more exciting." One memory – of one of those good days – particularly stands out in Alanna's mind. The previous weeks had been especially challenging, and the student had been frequently hitting himself. That day though, he came into Gateways smiling, exclaiming out loud that he was excited to be there. Alanna and the other volunteers channeled this positive energy, and the student had a wonderful day, participating eagerly in Hebrew, and singing and dancing along during music. Alanna comments on the supportive classroom environment that celebrated these small wins, saying, "even though it all sounds like such little things, there was such a growth from how it was the weeks before that everyone in the class was excited." These little moments added up, and Alanna's student progressed over the course of the year, from struggling to recognize Hebrew letters to reading entire words and sentences.

During one of her years volunteering, Alanna had to make a difficult choice between Gateways and another passion of hers: theater. When Alanna learned that her rehearsals would conflict with the Sunday Program, she knew that pulling out from theater might prevent her from participating in future productions. Still, Alanna says, when it came down to comparing the show to "three years of genuinely impactful work," she knew what her choice would be. "The show will be over and then the show's over," she muses, "but then there's also Gateways, which happens every week...and I had seen the impact that Gateways could make on these kids, and so ultimately I was like, that's more important."

Now, because of this choice, Alanna is on the path to becoming an education professional, earning a dual degree in elementary and special education. She is student teaching full time and will be spending an additional semester teaching in a special education setting. Even with these commitments, Alanna finds time to tutor a girl with autism in reading twice a week. Alanna asserts that it was Gateways that led her here, both by illuminating her path to a special education degree and by giving her foundational skills that have made her feel equipped to do this work. In fact, things she learned in teen volunteer training with Gateways' behavioral specialist, Mia Hyman, often come up in Alanna's college classes and her work as a student teacher. Alanna texts Mia all the time, she says, whenever a concept or tool she learned from Mia is the subject of an essay or class discussion.

One of Mia's tools that Alanna uses frequently is a token system. Her current tutoring student responds particularly well to it, Alanna says, and they have a special token board, decorated with photos of the student's dogs, that the student can use to earn rewards. "This whole motivation and reinforcement system was completely everything I learned at Gateways," Alanna adds. These techniques support Alanna's work with students who do not have disabilities, too. "A lot of the strategies I learned at Gateways, yes they worked wonders for these kids, but they're just good life skills and people skills to have...it's such real-life knowledge that they would teach you."

When asked if Gateways shaped her perspective more broadly about inclusion and its role in education, Alanna nods an enthusiastic yes. She thinks back to a discussion in one of her college classes, in which several classmates expressed the view that students with diverse learning needs should always be fully separated from their peers without disabilities. "I remember I got angry," she says "and I went on this spiel about inclusion, and I had never realized how strong my feelings were that every child should have the chance to be included…and that they should have assistance and adaptations made."

Above all, what has stuck with Alanna is the capability and resilience of her Gateways students. Though they struggled with learning challenges, these students came to Gateways each Sunday to work with such determination to achieve things — like becoming a Bat Mitzvah or learning to read Hebrew — that others thought impossible. Their accomplishments have inspired Alanna to help other students like them to reach their full potential, too. "It's given me such a work ethic now," Alanna reflects. "Look at these kids. Look what they're capable of."

 

My favorite part of the Haggadah this year

By Tamar Davis, Chief Executive Officer
March 25, 2021

One passage from the Haggadah that is resonating with me this Passover is the Four Children... from the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik), to Rabbi Miriam Spitzer, to Gateways Haggadah author Rebecca Redner, there are many reflections on this passage's powerful theme of how education is meant to adapt to meet each child where they are.

As we enter Passover and absorb the lessons of the Four Children and the Haggadah, I hope you’ll share with me one of your favorite parts of the Haggadah this year as well.

Wishing you a happy and HEALTHY Passover - Chag Pesach sameach!

 

Questions We're Asking this Passover

By Tamar Davis, Chief Executive Officer
March 19, 2021

With Passover coming up, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of the word “Seder.” In our Gateways Haggadah, we learn that “Seder means ‘order’ in Hebrew. We call the Passover celebration a Seder because we follow a schedule and do everything in a particular order.” Many of us are cleaning and organizing our homes, taking everything out and holding it up to the light, attempting to establish a sense of order during this particularly disordered time. That’s exactly what we are doing right now at Gateways, through our strategic planning process that we embarked on these last couple of months and plan to conclude later this spring. We are examining everything we do, measuring each piece of our work against our mission to enable students with diverse learning needs to succeed in Jewish educational settings and participate meaningfully in Jewish life.

And in the spirit of our Passover tradition to ask questions at the Seder table, we are asking many questions during this process. We had a special opportunity to ask some of these questions during a fascinating and enlightening panel discussion featuring national experts in education and inclusion, which we hosted with our board members and staff in attendance. The questions we posed to this panel focused on understanding examples of successful partnerships and synergies on the local and national level, trends that might continue in the post-pandemic world, and how we could learn from organizations that have successfully made their missions everlasting even as philanthropic priorities shift. If you'd like to learn more about our panel, please email me.

Other questions we’ve been exploring include: When it comes to the ability to participate meaningfully in Jewish life, what are the greatest barriers facing children with special needs or disabilities and their families? What trends are relevant to those of us in the disability inclusion field? What does Gateways do best? As friends and supporters of Gateways, I hope you will share any other questions you think it’s important for us to explore during this time.

This strategic planning process will enable us to hone our focus on a bold future, to continue our role as leaders in the movement to ensure a meaningful Jewish education for all learners, and to reaffirm our commitment to the Gateways mission. I look forward to sharing the Strategic Plan with you when it is completed, and I welcome your participation as we tackle new challenges and pursue new opportunities on behalf of our community’s children.

 

Gateways Teen Volunteers: Remote Learning Stars

By Sandy Gold, Director of Jewish Education Programs
March 18, 2021

The Gateways Jewish Education Programs are meeting remotely in Zoom break-out rooms this year. Each of our students work with two teen volunteers.

On one recent Sunday, I filled in for one of our teens who couldn't be there and I got to sit in on a full session with one of our new and youngest students. I say "sit in", because it was clear that the teen running the session did not need my help in any way! Oh, and did I mention, this session was a Hebrew lesson?

I'm not sure who I was most impressed with – Rebecca Redner for taking our unique Hebrew reading program and converting it to a digital format, complete with motivation emojis and Hebrew letters raining down? This teen, who so confidently and capably, is teaching so effectively in this remote setting? Or this young student, whose smile lights up the whole screen as he is embracing learning Hebrew as just one piece of his Jewish education?

This week marks one year since Gateways moved to a remote format. Yet, as I sat there that Sunday, in awe of what I watched unfolding on my screen, it reaffirmed for me, the importance of what we, at Gateways, are doing as we continue to embrace the value of a Jewish education.

 

Binge watching and being inspirational

By Tamar Davis, Chief Executive Officer
March 12, 2021

This week, as many of us are marking the one year anniversary of when life as we knew it changed drastically, I share with you one particular "binge-watch" that has gotten me through tough days this year. I hope you'll check out my video message to hear how “I don’t want to be just an inspiration, I want to be taken seriously,” reminded me why our work at Gateways continues to be so significant.

Category: Reflections & Perspectives

Tagged under: media portrayals, defeating ableism