Amid lots of excitement and community support, the Chai Lifeline i-Shine program will be introduced in Westchester/Riverdale at its host location, Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, New York, on Wednesday, February 20, from 4 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. Joining the i-Shine programs located in the tri-state area as well as in Chicago, Canada and Belgium, Westchester/Riverdale i-Shine is proud to partner with Chai Lifeline in serving the Jewish community’s most vulnerable children and their families.
i-Shine is a unique after-school program designed for families dealing with difficult health issues or loss of a parent or child. Everyday life is disrupted as families deal with medical problems and multitudes of other responsibilities. When life’s challenges become too enormous for any one family to cope, Chai Lifeline provides relief and assistance through their remarkable i-Shine program.
More than 11 years ago, Annette Kaufman, who lives in the Five Towns, had a serendipitous moment. Recognizing the difficulties faced by families in her community who were dealing with a child or parent who was sick and who required ongoing medical care or those who had experienced the death of a beloved close family member, she sought to create a program that would offer respite to these families. Along with her good friends, Stacey Zrihen and Deena Intrator, also from the Five Towns, she approached Chai Lifeline to discuss their concept of creating a program for kids who were not ill but were living with medical challenges at home. Chai Lifeline, an organization experienced in providing emotional, social and financial support to children living with serious illnesses, immediately recognized the wisdom of their idea. i-Shine was soon welcomed as an important, integral part of the Five Towns Jewish community. Kaufman, Zrihen and Intrator demonstrated the utmost sensitivity in developing i-Shine; the tremendous chesed offered by these women remains truly remarkable.
The i-Shine programs plan their schedules and programming to meet the community’s needs, with most following a similar paradigm of providing after-school sessions, usually twice a week for several hours, where kids get together in a warm, caring environment as they complete homework assignments under the tutelage of parent, teacher and high school volunteers, enjoy snacks and well-planned sports and art activities, are treated to a delicious dinner and then return to their families, just about ready to go to bed. Parents know their kids will be engaged and having fun, adult supervision will be provided, and transportation from the child’s current school to the i-Shine location and back to the child’s home at the end of the session will be provided by volunteer drivers.
High school juniors and seniors in nearby schools are contacted to volunteer as “big brothers” and “big sisters” to the participating kids. These amazing high school volunteers are the “heart and soul” of the program as they provide friendship, kindness and excitement while playing games and sports activities, helping with homework or lavishing the kids with one-on-one attention. The importance as well as popularity of i-Shine with high school students has grown to the extent that there are many more students offering to volunteer than the program can accept.
As a parent of a high-school volunteer wrote, “Daniel participated in i-Shine twice a week to volunteer. I know firsthand what a wonderful organization it is and Daniel and his friends, the volunteers, also got so much out of it. I still have photos in my kitchen of Daniel (now a college student) with different kids at the carnivals that they used to put on. Fortunately, I do not have any firsthand experience on the other side of things, but I can only imagine how helpful it is to have your kids entertained, homework done, dinner fed and a ride back home! What a worthy endeavor...making lives easier for other parents with cancer and/or chronic illness.”
i-Shine of the Five Towns is hosted by HAFTR (Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway) and serves children who attend more than 10 yeshivot and day schools in the area. Starting the program with about 10 families and 15 kids, the program currently has approximately 20 families and 42 kids, with 10 parent volunteers, 90 student volunteers and 80 drivers. High school student volunteers attend HAFTR, DRS and SKA.
When Kaufman discussed the way the program operates in the Five Towns, she was quick to mention the amazing people with whom she works, explaining, “Every ounce of getting i-Shine up and running is ALL STACEY!” (Stacey Zhiren, one of the group’s founders.) With charts and schedules, supplies and arrangements, the logistics of i-Shine require organizational skills, adherence to particulars, creativity, flexibility and a sensitivity to challenging situations. Zrihen and Kaufman are quite a team, now assisted by co-chairs Sheri Hammer and Natalie Hiller. Retired and current teachers volunteer at the program, as well as college-aged kids, who were i-Shine volunteers when they were in high school, returning to the program when time permits.
Kaufman compares running i-Shine as “kind of like being in the cast of the Wizard of Oz. You need brains, heart and courage and a great desire to help.”
Andy Lauber, LMSW, has been an integral part of i-Shine since its inception. Working with each new i-Shine chapter in its development, Lauber provides directions, insights and methods that will contribute to a program’s success. Lauber explained that i-Shine “is a unique program. It is driven by volunteers who provide the utmost chesed. It’s known that when there is illness or loss in a family, everyone in the family is effected. Especially when a sibling is ill, the other children take a back seat because the focus is on the sibling who is ill. Life changes drastically. Sometimes when there’s a difficult situation, some children go above and beyond, keep working hard in school and are ‘good’ at home; other children seem to fall through the cracks. i-Shine provides a place for a child to be understood, a place for a child to ‘shine,’ a place where a child can be special.”
With the extra attention provided by i-Shine volunteers, especially the high school kids, many kids will move forward and thrive thanks to the one-on-one attention they receive. Lauber spoke about one unhappy child who was failing in school. With attention and tutoring, the child began to excel in his work and was able to feel good about himself. Lauber continued, “It’s all about relationships and caring.”
To the kids in i-Shine, there are so many positive role models. From the dedicated drivers to the volunteers who provide fun, activities and food and, especially, to the “cool” high school mentors, the kids realize they are part of a bigger community of people who care. Many of the relationships developed between the kids and their high school “pals” endure beyond the program, with the young adults contacting the kids when they’re in Israel or in college. Student volunteers often return to visit the program when they’re in the neighborhood.
Gila Weinstein, one of the organizers of i-Shine in New Jersey, explained her reason for becoming involved with i-Shine. “When my son was in sixth grade, two of his classmates lost their mothers to cancer. It was heartbreaking, so when Rabbi Zahtz suggested bringing i-Shine to Teaneck, I felt it was the least I could do to help these boys and their families.” Weinstein became part of the team that started the program in New Jersey, including Rabbi Ari Zahtz, assistant rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, his wife, Michal, and Deena Kasovitz. Today, assisted by Faigy Ort and Hadassah Goldberg,Weinstein’s sister, i-Shine of New Jersey now serves 13 families. Michelle Bardash and Rachelle Margulies organize an army of 50 who are the i-Shine drivers.
Yeshivat Noam plays host to New Jersey i-Shine, and students attend the program from the many yeshivot in the area. Senior volunteers attend Ma’ayanot, Frisch and MTA. Weinstein continued, “The best part of i-Shine is being able to help. At i-Shine we are able to give children who are sad or stressed attention, love, help with homework, dinner and a really cool high school senior as a friend. We are trying to help create fun and happy memories for children at a time when fun can’t be a priority at home. Our seniors, aka superheroes, know we’ve had a successful i-Shine afternoon when the group chat ends with ‘and everyone went home happy.’”
i-Shine groups in different areas organize events for children and families such as Chanukah celebrations, Purim parties, annual bake sales, annual sports tournaments and other venues that raise money to pay the continuing costs of subsidizing these programs. i-Shine families do not pay to participate; volunteers organize the programs and often donate goods and services. Bar and bat mitzvah projects in many areas also select i-Shine as the recipient of special fundraising projects.
Westchester/Riverdale i-Shine was created by a dedicated group of volunteers who recognized an existing need within the community and who spent many months planning the program. A great deal of gratitude is extended to the i-Shine organizers in both the Five Towns and New Jersey for providing countless hours of discussion and sharing of methods and ideas with this new group of volunteers, in addition to inviting them to on-site observations. Schools such as SAR and WTA graciously offered to host the program and provided important technical assistance along the way. WDS, with its beautiful facilities located on the shore of the Long Island Sound, was ultimately selected as the home for the new i-Shine chapter. The community is extremely grateful to WDS for its resources, advice and investment in the program’s success.
The underlying hope is that the need for i-Shine will cease to be and, instead, people will be blessed with good health. People in the Westchester/Riverdale communities, acknowledging the tremendous chesed inherent in this program, provided generous support with big-hearted, benevolent donations. The many volunteers who dedicate their time and energy to establish and staff Westchester/Riverdale i-Shine are a talented, tireless and compassionate group of people. They will continue to run the program with the sensitivity and dedication required to “turn bad memories into good memories” and will keep in mind the i-Shine mantra of asking families the all-important question: “How can i-Shine be of help to you?”
By Yvette Finkelstein