When Rafi Gasner decided to spend a year studying in a seminary in Israel, she thought she would spend most of the time focusing on her own personal growth. Her year has shaped up to be much more about helping others.
Gasner was born and raised in Thornhill, Ont. While attending Ulpanat Orot High School for Girls, she quickly discovered that one of her biggest passions in life is helping others, specifically children with special needs.
She volunteered with Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, an organization dedicated to addressing the needs of disabled peoples and including them in the Jewish community. “My high school promoted volunteer work and especially organizations like Yachad. On the first day that I met with the people at Yachad, I immediately felt a connection to them and I loved what I was doing. It made me want to come back, and I continued volunteering there for four years,” Gasner said. Afterward she volunteered with D.A.N.I. Toronto, an organization founded in 2005 to create opportunities for young adults with disabilities and allow them to have a full and meaningful quality of life. “I was intrigued with the organization… because they help young adults live a real and full life, just like any other adult. After working mostly with children at Yachad, I wanted to volunteer with D.A.N.I. and help young adults like myself have the same opportunities that I did,” Gasner said.
Her desire for helping people with special needs led her to work for Camp HASC in New York for two summers. The organization provides children with special needs the opportunity to attend sleepover camps. “It’s really completely different than working with other children. If these kids don’t do something, it’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. I really wanted to help kids grow and overcome some of their obstacles.” After graduating from Ulpanat Orot, Gasner decided to spend a year in a seminary in Israel. Part of her program was committing to one afternoon a week of volunteer work. She chose to volunteer with ALEH, Israel’s biggest network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities.
After one afternoon, she fell in love with the organization, the staff and the kids, and she decided to volunteer there not only once a week, as required by her school, but also on her weekly day off from school. “It’s a very welcoming environment,” she said. “On the first day I was there, I noticed all the kids had these beautiful smiles on their faces. It was so amazing to see their genuine smiles.” In the beginning, Gasner had to overcome some challenges herself. She was not fluent in Hebrew, which made it difficult to communicate to the staff and the kids. “The teachers only spoke Hebrew, which was challenging for me, since my Hebrew was not very good. Luckily, the staff was very helpful and helped me communicate with the kids,” she said. “The one thing that really amazes me is that every day is a different, unique experience. Every day these kids have new challenges that they overcome. My job is to help them through these challenges, and help make their lives like any other kids’ lives. One day we had a musical therapist come in and we helped the kids dance. Their faces lit up, and you could see they felt valuable.” Gasner knew when she got involved with ALEH that she would be giving back to the community, but she is pleased that the experience has helped her as well. “I didn’t just want to spend a year focusing on myself. I wanted to give back to the community, and in the end, this experience is also helping me grow,” she said. “When you work with special needs children, you develop an appreciation for life. You see how they appreciate the [smallest] things, from being able to hold a ball in their hands to being able to stand up, and it makes you grateful for everything you have,” she added. The staff at ALEH plan activities such as dancing, baking cookies and Shabbat parties. They try to let the kids use their different motilities to do the different activities. “Some kids can move their hands, so we would play a game like bowling. Other kids can’t move at all, so we let them touch the textures to their face so they can feel what we are doing,” said Gasner. She hopes to pursue a career in special needs and nursing. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. These children don’t complain about their obstacles, and they take on their challenges. It helped me learn to deal with my own challenges. “When I first came to ALEH, my biggest challenge was [the] language barrier. When I saw how these kids deal with bigger problems every day, it helped me overcome my difficulty.” She is thankful the staff at ALEH was so welcoming, and is grateful to have formed relationships with both the teachers and the kids. “These teachers are 24/7 caretakers. The kids have constant love and care from people who they are not related to. They develop a connection to us, and this bond is so rewarding.” For more information on ALEH, visit www.