“Hi Tammy. It’s Penina. It was so nice meeting you and spending Shabbos with you guys last week. It was such an amazing weekend. I wish we were going back on the shabbaton this coming Shabbos!” This was the message I received on my answering machine the Friday after the Yachad Family Shabbaton. It was from one of the friends I had made over the weekend, a mother of a special-needs child, just like myself. When I heard this message, it put a smile on my face. It also made me want to go on another shabbaton.
Every spring, Yachad, a division of the OU, runs a retreat for families of children with special-needs. As a mother of Tova, a thirteen year-old with Down Syndrome and four other children B”H, I have had to juggle the needs of my special-needs child with the needs of the rest of my family. There have been family outings where I’ve had a shadow come along with us; times I’ve left my daughter with others, and times where we’ve just stayed home. The amazing thing about the Yachad Family Shabbaton is that there is nothing to juggle. You just show up and Yachad has orchestrated everything.
This year, when we arrived at the Hudson Valley Resort, Tova’s advisor came right up to us and introduced herself. From that moment, I knew that Tova would be well taken care of for the duration of the weekend. From that point on, I knew Tova would always have a session to go to or an activity to participate in. For a parent of a special-needs child, this is essential. Even if you have some respite on Shabbos, unstructured time can seem especially long for a child with special needs. This freedom allowed my husband, my other children, and me to use the hotel facilities and get ready for Shabbos with the comfort of knowing that Tova was in good hands.
Sometimes we don’t realize how much our other children need extra attention and special treats. Yachad understands this and hence provides these things for all of my children on the Family Shabbaton. There were sessions and games for Tova, day camp for my younger boys, sibling sessions for my sixteen year-old daughter, separate swimming times, ping-pong, and a magic show on Motzai Shabbos for everyone.
When we arrived on Friday, I felt like I had come home. Every family spoke our language. They all had a child with special needs. All the masks came off. There was nothing to be self-conscious about. We were able to let our guard down, even if it was for just one weekend. It was so moving to see how excited the Yachad members, our daughter included, were to be at this shabbaton. It was equally moving to enter the dining hall on Friday night and see so many families with children just like Tova. More than 600 people came together to share and learn from one another. Thanks to Yachad, we were able to connect with each other in a way that would have otherwise been impossible.
At the Shabbos meals, Yachad sat us with different families so we would have an opportunity to meet a variety of people from a number of different places. Families came from all over the New York/New Jersey area, but also from as far as Baltimore, Boston, Montreal and Chicago. The zemiros resounding in the dining room truly enhanced the Shabbos meals.
Throughout the weekend there were multiple sessions offered that were both educational and inspirational. One particular session was given by Dr. Karen Summar, a developmental pediatrician who specializes in children and adolescents with Down Syndrome and their behaviors. As we sat in this workshop and heard other families describe challenges similar to ours, we truly felt understood.