Family Retreats Offer a Helping Hand to Special Needs Kids and Their Parents

July 19, 2011

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For Vladimir and Irina, everyday parenting is a struggle. Both of their young children suffer from debilitating illnesses: Nikita, 8, has cerebral paralysis; his legs do not work, so he can’t move without his parents’ help and his speech is also severely impaired. Ellina is five, and soon after she was born her parents learned that she had encephalopathy (brain disease/disorder) and would require ongoing medical attention throughout her life.

The difficulty of meeting their children’s special needs is confounded by the pressures of making ends meet on the family’s meager $200 monthly income. The children require regular doctors’ visits, treatments, medications, and nutritious food—but the household utilities alone cost over $100 per month.

Strained, isolated, and overwhelmed, Vladimir and Irina have no public resources to turn to for help—which is why JDC’s assistance is so critical. They receive food and medicines, diapers, clothes, and household supplies to help them meet their basic needs. They rely on special packages of food and Jewish items in order to celebrate the holidays. But the family has found its greatest assistance in the community and support that embraced them at this year’s JDC Family Integration Retreat just outside their hometown of Kishinev, Moldova.

“Other families with kids with special needs can understand the hardships, pain, and fears that go along with raising children with disabilities and help us feel less alone,” Irina says.

JDC supports family retreat programs throughout Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Over 5500 people will participate in intergenerational gatherings, Shabbatons, and retreats throughout the region this year. Integrated family retreats are unique as they are staffed by specially trained madrichim as well as psychologists, medical doctors, and specialists for children with special needs. They provide an environment where parents and children alike can receive tailored assistance and take part in sensitive programming designed to make the most of their children’s abilities and talents.

Families take part in Jewish activities (like decorating hamsas, kippot, and Shabbat candles), and everyone comes together as one big family to celebrate Shabbat and then to sing Havdalah songs as Shabbat draws to a close. For many, these programs offer the only chance to connect with other families in the disability community and to find an entry point into Jewish life.

This is just what happened to the Shoob family: Eugene, 50, is a single father to Lubov, his ten-year-old daughter who suffers from cerebral spastic infantile paralysis. They didn’t think other families would understand their trying circumstances so they’d never taken part in community activities until last year, when when they participated in the family retreat in Minsk, Belarus.

“The days we spent at the Jewish family retreat were unforgettable,” Eugene reflects. “Initially, I went for the sake of my daughter but I learned so much myself. Lubov found new friends and came back proud to be part of the Jewish people. I’d thought it was hardly possible to find like-minded people at my age but found out just how wrong I was.”

Today Eugene and Lubov take part in their local family club and the Mishpacha (Family) theatre program, and attend all of the community’s holidays, concerts, festivals, and activities. They’ve started going to synagogue and Lubov now attends the JDC-supported Minsk Jewish Community Center programs where she plays, dances, and has made many friends. Eugene is very grateful for his newfound community and cannot wait to for this year’s retreat.

“I have always known my family is Jewish,” he said. “But now I know what that means and what a joy it can be.”

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