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Ilana and Jaime: an unexpected friendship Eighteen-year-old’s volunteerism leads to lasting relationship with special-needs student By Rachel Fadlon Special to The Advocate “I am blessed to be an 18-yearold who actually knows what I want to do when I grow up,� says Ilana Mael. Mael, a recent graduate of Gann Academy, met her friend Jaime when the two were paired together three years ago at the Sunday Program offered by Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, which is located in Newton. On a whim, Mael had signed up to get more information about a volunteer opportunity to work with students with special needs. Little did she know that she would not only be accepted into the program, but that the experience would change her life. Jaime had been attending Gateways: Access to Jewish Education’s Sunday program since age 5. The program provides a Jewish education for students who are unable to participate in a typical religious school environment. She has cerebral palsy and communicates using an assistive technology device. Aside from small classroom sizes and teachers who are all special education professionals, all of the students in the program have a dedicated teen volunteer (sometimes more than one) who works one-on-one with them. In addition to working in the classroom weekly with their students, all teen volunteers meet each week to receive training and support from a teen volunteer coordinator. Jaime and Mael were paired together after Jaime’s former volunteer graduated from high school. As Mael learned to communicate with Jaime, she discovered a clever, witty young girl. The two bonded

over shared interests – TV, music, hobbies – and even planned to show up dressed the same to class. “Each week,� said Mael, “I couldn’t wait to see her and continue our conversations about Taylor Swift and Lovelane. She is a bright, funny young woman. I love her sense of humor!� As Jaime approached the age of becoming a bat mitzvah, she also began to attend Gateways’ B’nei Mitzvah Program on Wednesdays. As part of that preparation – just as in many congregational B’nei Mitzvah programs – Jaime had to pick a cause that she supports and raise awareness and money for it. Jaime chose Lovelane, a special-needs horseback riding program in which she participates. She wrote letters that were sent out in Gateways’ weekly newsletters, sharing information about her project and giving updates on her progress in reaching her monetary goal. Meanwhile, in addition to volunteering, Mael became involved in Gateways’ Mitzvah Mensches, an inclusive youth group for teens that focuses on social action and philanthropy. The teens chose several causes that were important to them and learned about them during the year, including Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Gateways, Thank Israeli Soldiers, the World Wildlife Fund, Helping Hands, the Animal Rescue League and Lovelane. They also raised money. At the end of the year, the students campaigned for which cause to donate the funds they had raised. At this point, Jaime was just dollars away from reaching her fundraising goal for Lovelane. As luck would have it, Lovelane was one of

the choices that the Mitzvah Mensches were considering and Mael jumped in to save the day. Not only did she successfully convince her peers to vote to support Lovelane, but she also persuaded them to give the money directly to Jaime so that she could donate it to Lovelane, with the rest of the money she had raised as part of her bat mitzvah project. (It is unclear whether Mael or Jaime was more excited and proud of their accomplishment.) On May 29, Gateways held an appreciation event to honor the almost 70 teens who volunteer in its Sunday Program. Two teens were chosen to speak about their experiences, and Mael was one of them. As she got up to speak, she did something unexpected: she walked over to Jaime and wheeled her onstage with her, so that she could direct her words to Jaime. As Mael spoke of how she became a volunteer and how she came to adore her young friend, Jaime sat on the stage beaming with joy, taking in every word – and clearly agreeing. “The dedication of the entire Gateways staff is truly inspirational,� Mael said. “There is no doubt in my mind that Gateways has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my high school experience – I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.� Not only did Mael gain a friend, but through her experiences with Jaime and her involvement in Gateways’ programs, she is now certain that her future career path will include special education. Rachel Fadlon is Director of Marketing and Communications for Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.

Ilana Mael holds a letter that her friend Jaime wrote about Lovelane, the organization Jaime supported for her bat mitzvah project. The Ilana Mael and her friend Jaime letter was shared in the weekly newsletter published by Gateways: are both dressed in red because they’re fans of Taylor Swift. Access to Jewish Education.

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