TORONTO — Yachad, an organization that brings together young adults with developmental disabilities and their peers, is celebrating its 20th anniversary in Toronto.
Seen here, top row from left, David Silver, Galya Ouanounou; bottom row, from left, Tehila Berglass, Lauren Krieser, Yachad member, Rafaela Grodzinski, and Daniel Krieser.
“The whole goal is for those with disabilities to be together [with their non-disabled counterparts] and have a good time,” said program co-ordinator Galya Ouanounou.
Yachad means “together” in Hebrew, Ouanounou explained. Its events include science centre outings, trips to the zoo, challah baking and out-of-town excursions for Shabbatons.
In 1988, Torontonian Chana Zweiter, who had a child with special needs, wanted her child to become involved in the Jewish community. Rabbi Nosson Westreich, who led the Toronto branch of the youth group National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) at the time, became interested in duplicating a New York program for children with and without disabilities, and merged Yachad’s programming into NCSY’s.
“It was an avant-garde idea at the time, but now it’s mainstream. We found these programs weren’t just for their benefit [the young people with special needs], but for the benefit of the volunteers, as well,” Rabbi Westreich said. “It was a transformative experience for me, too. At the time, I didn’t have contact with the special needs population.”
He credited Yachad’s early accomplishments for inspiring the work he does today. He works at the adolescent outpatient clinic at Sunnybrook Hospital, where he treats psychiatric illnesses in children with developmental challenges.
Ouanounou became involved with the group when she was in high school, and 15 years ago, was hired as Yachad’s co-ordinator. At first, she oversaw a handful of participants.
Today, the organization in Toronto has about 50 members, with two dozen university-aged volunteers. There are even waiting lists to volunteer for the night learning classes, she said.
Up to 40 high schoolers participate and offer help at any given Shabbaton, Ouanounou said.
In addition to its own events, Yachad also participates in a variety of outreach and community events, including Out of the Cold, a program that helps feed the homeless, and Tikkun Toronto, an organization of youth groups who get together once a year to do charitable works.
“This kind of involvement allows Yachad members to have a fun feeling of being Jewish and have fun celebrating holidays, and it’s something that’s grown and developed over the years. They might not have the opportunity to do these things if we weren’t here,” Ouanounou said.
Another program included a joint effort by the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre and the Reena Centre to have a “move and mingle” program, an eight-week session of folk dancing, followed by dinner and socializing.
“Whatever abilities they have, they love these programs, and we feel that with these events, they’re feeling more confident,” Ouanounou said.
In recent years, some Jewish high schools in the Toronto area have networked with Yachad, including Yeshivat Or Chaim and Ulpanat Orot. Together, students host parties for Yachad members, with raffles, food and games.
David Silver, 21, a psychology major at York University, became involved with Yachad two years ago. As assistant co-ordinator, he helps Ouanounou plan events.
“I want to emphasize that you don’t want to define them by their disabilities. It’s not, ‘Sarah, the Down syndrome girl,’ but ‘Sarah, the 12-year-old who happens to have Down Syndrome,’” Silver said.
Susie Sokol, mother of Talya, 23, has been with the organization for 12 years. “It’s a truly inclusionary program,” Sokol said. “Galya’s very respectful of the kids. She deserves kudos. It’s her attitude that has been caring and supportive, and it stays with the kids.”
Sokol added that Yachad has helped Talya feel more integrated into the community.
“I often take her to a mall or food shopping, and someone will come over and greet her because they know her from Yachad. It gives her support, and it makes a parent feel secure,” she said.
“What’s outstanding is that those [who are] a part of Yachad are given that chance to do what everyone else does at Shabbatons, like sleep away at someone else’s house and enjoying other’s company.”