July 13, 2024
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July 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

i-Shine Lights Up Our Neighborhood

We are so fortunate to have in our neighborhood a safe and warm haven for families to turn to when faced with challenges due to illness and loss. i-Shine was created by Chai Lifeline to help and aid families experiencing these challenges. It provides an emotionally secure after school program for elementary school children affected by rough times, a home away from home. When someone in the family is ill, the whole family needs help. Twice each week children from these families are engulfed in a warm environment and a flexible structure of activities where they are the sole focus and can truly shine.

i-Shine under the direction of Andy Lauber LMSW, Director of i-Shine, is run by Michal Zahtz, Deena Kaszovitz, Faigy Ort and Gila Weinstein, who coordinate every detail of the program. They work closely with many other wonderful volunteers from the neighborhood who gain as much from their participation as they contribute.

Gila Weinstein, one of the founders and primary coordinators of the Bergen County program, recently spoke to me about the program that she proudly and repeatedly called a “fun and warm placer where we take care of our friends.” She explained, “When children are swept along by difficult family situations, i-Shine is the place where they shine. They feel secure in the loving environment while having so much fun working alongside high school seniors from the area. The children love being with seniors who they consider super cool while participating in a host of fun activities and doing homework together. i-Shine is all about them”.

i-Shine is named in the memory of Ilana Michal Schwartz, a young girl who passed away from cancer, and to whom her parents decided to dedicate the program. Now, in its fourth successful year, there are currently sixty local drivers who pick the children up from community schools and transport them to Yeshivat Noam in shifts to accommodate different dismissal times. They meet every Monday and Wednesday come rain or shine in three rooms Noam has dedicated- including the gym.

Gila further explained, “These dedicated drivers are local women who work very hard to keep the shifts and schedules timely, and sometimes even go into the various schools to get the children. Michelle Bardash and Rachelle Margulies arrange this complex schedule. The drivers care deeply and bond with the children in their carpools. “We’re always looking for good and careful drivers who can make the commitment to help us out.”

When the children arrive, “I’m the first face they see with a smile and a hug.” But, Gila admits the people they really look forward to seeing are the seniors who come from MTA, Maayanot, and Frisch, who she refers to as “spectacular super heroes.” This past year, thirty seniors had the opportunity to show their own shining qualities in terms of their kindness, empathy, and just being there for younger children who look forward to hanging out with them. They form special friendships and often see each other outside the program as well. A few months ago, I saw exactly this kind of special relationship while walking in Votee Park, when a volunteer I knew bought ice cream for some of the kids she befriended through the program. They looked like a group of friends having fun on a beautiful early summer day. When I told Gila she wasn’t surprised and said, “We all become family.”

Within the schedule of events each evening, there is so much warmth and flexibility to ensure that every child can feel absolutely comfortable. If someone feels out of sorts and doesn’t want to participate in an activity, they can do something else. “Look life is hard for these kids and our goal is for them to feel good. Initially some children can be hesitant to join, but then always want to return because we have so much fun—even doing homework together is fun!”

After raiding the snack closet, the children work with the seniors on homework in a quiet room. It’s often difficult for parents to focus on homework when the family is overwhelmed with these challenging times, and the seniors help them study and to complete school work. In addition, when parents are unable to attend school events, an i-Shine volunteer will often step up to the plate and attend instead.

Watch out because after homework is done, the real fun begins! And who wouldn’t have a great time when presented with such a variety of activities and local talent? Activities range from making snow globes, cupcakes with special fondants, mezuzahs, face painting, and styling hair and nails. One volunteer even brought in baby chicks, and there have been a host of other animal visits including snakes. In the gym, all sorts of athletic games go on as well. To top it all off, the annual Purim Chagigah is a special time when all volunteers are invited to join in the activities. Every detail is accounted for, and the children all receive amazing costumes to wear—all courtesy of donations. Absolutely no one is left out.

In fact, the fun factor is a reputation i-Shine has developed within the community. Gila recounts a story, “I received a call from a mother whose child talked about this great program where everyone has so much fun— you just got to get me in!” Another child asked Gila when her parent gets better if she can come back. The children often ask if they could meet in the summer, but most of the children attend camp.

Finally, the evening winds down with dinner which is always at six, and the food is generously subsidized by local vendors and kosher markets. It’s such a credit to the community, as there are price reductions and food donations of fruit, vegetables, sushi, deli, burgers and hot dogs, and of course pizza. Monday is dairy night and each week the pizza lady arrives, and Wednesday is meat night. If a child doesn’t like a particular food—there are reinforcements handy. Volunteers bring the food in, and are vigilant about allergies. After dinner, the children are once again transported back to their homes by the volunteer drivers.

Like any proud mother, Gila pulled out her i-Shine pictures to show me. There they were: The colorful costumes for the Purim Chagigah, the snake winding its way around, the seniors working with the children, the local volunteers presenting their talents, and the end of the year barbeque at Gila’s house.

Smiling faces. A beautiful family portrait. People are truly like a family at i-Shine, and one special couple actually tied the knot– they met as senior volunteers and recently got married.

As for next year—Gila said, “We hope that we won’t have enough kids to run the program but as long as there is a need we will be there!” Please refer to the website for more information and volunteer opportunities at ishinechailifeline.org, or contact Gila Weinstein at [email protected].

By Esther Kook

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