As long as I can remember, my mid-winter break in February has been one of the most anticipated weeks of the year. Although my school also has a week-long break at the end of December, our mid-winter break is when my family and I get a chance to escape the cold of New York City and spend a week together in a warmer climate where we can swim, relax, even explore a new place together.
This year, my parents decided to schedule our family vacation in December as there was a longer break than usual, leaving me wondering how I was going to spend my time in February. As the week drew near, I thought that I would spend the time relaxing and enjoying a much needed break from the intense schedule of my first year of high school.
As a SAR High School freshman, I knew that our school planned a special chesed program for students who were home, but it was reserved for 10th-12th graders. This year, for the first time, the school decided to offer freshmen the opportunity to participate. When I received the email about it, I knew that it was something I wanted to do. Although I had already planned on spending most of my vacation in my pajamas in front of my computer or television, I was excited by the idea of being able to do something more valuable with some of my time off.
All my past chesed experiences during elementary school, including regular visits to residents of Riverdale’s Hebrew Home for the Aged and my bat mitzvah project in support of Sharsheret, an organization serving breast cancer patients and their families, have made a big impression on me and taught me so much as a person and as a Jew. The opportunity to extend this experience in my high school years was something that I could not pass up. Although I was a little nervous to be applying for a program that included older students who I didn’t know, I also thought it would be an experience from which I could learn and grow.
Very soon after I submitted my application, I learned that I was not alone. A record number of freshmen had applied to participate in the program and, suddenly, I was worried that I would not be accepted. Amazingly, the school decided that instead of turning students away, it would extend the program to include a freshman-only chesed day, and all applicants were invited to take part.
As the week approached, I became more and more excited as I knew that I was going to be able to experience this with friends and classmates that shared my interest. As much as I was excited to sleep late and not have to do homework, I knew that this trip would be the highlight of my week.
Our Chesed Day began on Wednesday morning when I, along with 13 other students, boarded a bus from SAR High School to our first stop: MCC (Manhattan Childrens Center), a school for autistic children. Each of us was paired with one child from the school, all of different ages and levels of disability. We had the opportunity to observe them first-hand, and begin to understand how they learn despite their disabilities. We were also allowed to interact with the children by playing games or just socializing with them.
I was paired with a child named William, who was about 4 years old. When I walked into the classroom, he was working on speech and writing, as these are his core disabilities. William can only speak by using a computer or iPad. His instructor was working with him on tracing letters and typing words, and she explained to me that he would be able to use this if he was ever in a situation where he could not use his words. She would say “Type ‘I want’” or “type William” and he would quickly respond with by typing exactly what she asked. Though he could not use speech to communicate his needs, at 4 years old he was already a typing expert and was able to answer the teacher’s question correctly every time. I was amazed that someone so young could type so well and so fast, even though he is severely disabled. I was fascinated by all the ways the teacher was able to communicate with him regardless of his inability to respond verbally. I had the opportunity to play a few games with William and he was very responsive and engaged in every activity—something I didn’t expect. When it was time to leave, William gave me a high five and said “bye.” I left him with a smile on my face.
After MCC, we made our way back to the Bronx to visit the BJCC (Bronx Jewish Community Center) and to prepare a fresh salad bar for underprivileged seniors in the neighborhood. We joined them for lunch and had the opportunity to interact with them. They enjoyed the fresh fruits and vegetables, and they were very appreciative to have been able to spend some time with us. At the end of our stay, we were able to give them the leftover fruits and vegetables for them to enjoy at home.
The day ended with our group enjoying dinner and a show. Although I enjoyed that time, it was the activities of the earlier part of the day that had the greatest impression on me. When I got home that night, I realized that though I didn’t spend that much time doing this chesed program, even the littlest things can make a big difference in somebody else’s day. I also realized that though the day was devoted to others, I felt better about myself too, so it was something that benefited both the recipient and the giver. Though it was only one day of my winter break, it is something has inspired me to find ways to incorporate acts of chesed into my everyday life, and for that I am very grateful.
Sara Winter lives in North Riverdale and is a freshman at SAR High School.
By Sara Winter