April 10, 2024
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April 10, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

When the Unthinkable Happens, i-Shine Is There for Kids

When a family experiences critical illness, day-to-day life is often overwhelmed by the practical: medical appointments and treatment, keeping up with the bills, getting kids to and from school, preparing regular meals. Tending to emotional needs—especially those of children—can get lost in the upheaval of normal life, even in the most cohesive of communities. Many Jewish families facing serious illness and loss turn to Chai Lifeline for—well, a lifeline. The nonprofit organization was created in 1987 to provide social, emotional and financial support for children with life-threatening and lifelong illnesses and their families. Over its 35-year history, chapters have spread throughout North America—including a Yiddish-speaking division serving chasidish communities—as well as in Israel, Belgium and the U.K.

Among the nonprofit organization’s many tools is i-Shine, a free-of-charge extracurricular program for elementary- and middle school-aged children living with illness or loss in their families. Founded in Lawrence, Long Island, in the early 2000s, the program pairs young participants with high school-aged mentors and counselors who provide homework assistance and tutoring, play games and engage in sports and other recreational activities. Transportation, snacks and dinner are included, all facilitated by volunteers.

In addition to the Five Towns, Long Island, the tristate area includes a chapter, now 10 years old, serving the Teaneck, New Jersey, area. The newest chapter, hosted at Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, New York, is marking its fifth anniversary helping children coping with a difficult home life. It’s a bittersweet milestone, one that raises a paradox: “We want more participants but we don’t want more participants,” said Linda Zucker, who helps coordinate volunteer drivers.

The Westchester/Riverdale chapter came about after a Shabbat conversation between New Rochelle resident Yvette Finkelstein and her daughter-in-law, a Teaneck resident who introduced Finkelstein to i-Shine leaders in Teaneck and the Five Towns. Finkelstein was inspired, and when she asked friends to help bring i-Shine to the Westchester community, “nobody said no to me,” she recalled. Longtime friend Zucker was one of those who stepped forward.

“I have personal experience with cancer: I lost my mother when I was young. I was diagnosed 13 years ago,” she said. “My daughter was just starting high school. My youngest was 7 and he had a good friend whose mother had had cancer. My friends arranged meals for six months, driving my kids anywhere they needed to be.” Zucker wanted other families to have the same depth of support hers had experienced.

The organizers approached Jewish day schools and yeshivot throughout the region, and while each wanted to host the program, Westchester Day School (WDS) proved the best logistical fit. Every Wednesday, from right after the Chagim until the end of May, drivers pick up some 10 children from day schools in Riverdale, Hartsdale, New Rochelle and Scarsdale at their respective dismissal times and bring them to WDS, where i-Shine runs from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., and then transport them home. In addition to adult supervisors and teen volunteers, the psychologist or social worker on the chapter’s clinical team is present at each meeting.

But it’s the high school juniors and seniors who make the biggest impact, according to Finkelstein.

“You could have 20 adults in the room and the i-Shine kids don’t care, but when those teens walk in the door, the kids light up: ‘This is my buddy and I can talk to this person and this person is going to play with me and give me undivided attention,’” she said. “Some of these kids have problems at home. They don’t get as much attention as maybe they need, but when they come to i-Shine, there’s somebody there just for them—a cool high school buddy. We’re not only trying to help families in need, but the people who volunteer also get so much out of this that it makes them feel good.”

SAR High School senior Sam Krasner of New Rochelle first started volunteering as a junior when his principal encouraged students to sign up in exchange for a reward: being excused from one final exam. The offer was appealing enough to warrant closer consideration. Krasner had been making regular visits to the home of friends whose father had died suddenly, and had gotten to know their 7-year-old brother. At a school presentation about i-Shine, Finkelstein—a family friend of the Krasners—told Sam that the young boy was an i-Shine participant. “Yvette made it very clear that the kids are very sweet, kind, and respectful—but don’t get a lot of attention at home, and if volunteers give them that, it can change their lives,” Krasner said. “Because I knew a child who felt that way, I was more motivated to volunteer because I knew what kind of a difference it would make, considering what those kids had to go through. That was the selling point.”

Among the children who connect with their teen buddies every Wednesday afternoon are the Goldbergs of New Rochelle. “Our family got involved in i-Shine after we suffered an unfathomable loss in 2018,” said Michelle Goldberg. “Our son started going to i-Shine in September 2019 and our next daughter started in September 2020. i-Shine was incredible. Even during the pandemic, they made the kids feel so special and had incredible programming,” delivering pizza and an activity bag to participants’ homes each week. The Goldbergs’ son and daughter are now at WDS, in grades 3 and 1, respectively (and their 4-year-old daughter is slated to start i-Shine in a couple of years). “Wednesday is literally my children’s favorite day of the week,” Goldberg said. “They have gained such wonderful relationships with the other kids who are participants, as well as the wonderful teenage volunteers and parent volunteers. It’s an exceptionally well-run program and our family is so grateful for it.”

WDS principal Rabbi Dani Rockoff sees i-Shine’s ripple effect up close. “Westchester Day School is proud to be a welcoming home for i-Shine in the greater Westchester area,” he said. “It is a profoundly impactful program for the beneficiaries as well as for the many volunteers who make it happen. The level of engagement from the community and the leadership opportunities provided for area teenagers is astounding and inspiring.”

That mutual impact is why Krasner volunteered for a second year. “When the kids came back after summer break, it was like we had been friends for 15 years,” he recalled. “Seeing their faces, seeing them ready and running and smiling, I thought, ‘That’s the impact I can have, I’m a big part of their lives now.’ These are the nicest kids. They don’t take anything for granted and I have learned a lot from them in that respect, and when I’m there, it’s a win-win: I enjoy all the activities and seeing the kids, and it makes me feel like I’m really doing chesed.”

Organizers are always looking for volunteers, both for driving and for on-site helpers. Contact them at [email protected].

To learn more, visit https://www.chailifeline.org/ishinewestchester.

By Cynthia Mindell

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