You may wonder—and rightfully so—what in the world kids with Down syndrome, ex-convicts, and Hadassah women are doing in the same headline.
It’s simple, actually. Each of these three groups includes amazing people I probably never would have met or gotten to know if I didn’t choose the volunteer work that I did.
Ever since I was a young mother, Hadassah has been the constant in my volunteer life. It became my life-time address to help Israel thrive. But even before that, I had fallen in love with our Jewish homeland when I joined Young Judaea, Hadassah’s youth movement. It was a love that lifted me beyond the daily angsts of being a teenager to bond with my peers over something that was clearly so much more important.
I didn’t really think of myself as a leader when I first got involved in my Hadassah chapter in Millburn, New Jersey. But my new colleagues believed in me, and, before I knew it, I was taking on the presidency of my group. Digging deep, I cultivated leadership skills I never knew were in me. It was all very exhilarating. And I must admit, all-consuming–mentally and emotionally. So much so that my husband commented one evening, “Lonye, I just want you to know that you are never here. Even when you are here, you aren’t really here.” I was somewhat startled by his comment, because I had not realized until that moment how true it was. I was glad he added, “I can live with this for two years while you are president. But I just want you to be aware.”
Little did he know that he was in for decades of this Hadassah obsession, though I did learn to be present in the rest of life when I wasn’t “doing Hadassah.”
As the years went by, I began craving direct-service volunteer work. It was as if fate intervened one day after a racquetball game. I noticed that one of my league mates was rushing to get dressed. I asked her where she was going in such a hurry and she told me about her volunteer work with pre-school kids who have Down syndrome. I was intrigued. Shortly thereafter, I, too, became a volunteer in that local preschool. With guidance from the wonderful teachers, I attuned myself to the goals they had for the children’s advancement. I got into rhythm with these very loving little children and was buoyed by playing a part in helping them to reach their milestones.
But I can’t forget how equally meaningful it was to get to know the parents of those children. I came to admire greatly their inner strength as they dealt with the many challenges and physical health problems that come with the territory of raising a child with Down syndrome.
One of the biggest privileges of those years—and my life in general—was to co-edit a book of essays written by family members of those children and the extraordinary people who worked with and were touched by them. Titled Family Diaries, it was published by the ARC of Essex County, under whose umbrella the pre-school operated. The book was given as a gift to new parents whose babies were born with Down syndrome. I was told frequently how helpful and inspiring it was to them as they struggled to get a handle on this twist in their lives.
When I began living in New York City for the work week, I drifted away from that volunteer community. More recently, though, I found myself searching for more hands-on volunteer work once again. Through the recommendation of a friend, I got involved with projects of New York Cares. My favorite has been working with recent ex-convicts, where I conduct mock job interviews with them so they can practice for “the real thing.”
What led me to choose this particular project among the hundreds listed on the New York Cares website? I think it was the divisiveness and mistrust in today’s world that propelled me to want to connect with people totally outside my personal world. Maybe it was also my foray into Hadassah leadership that taught me it was ok—and actually exhilarating—to leave my comfort zone. Whatever led me there, it has given me a sense of purpose that lights up my soul.
When I began working with these young men, I worried whether they could really relate to this older woman from the suburbs who had lived such a different life from theirs. But I found very early on that I could connect with them—and not just on a superficial level. It was mesmerizing to watch them slowly open up and respond to me and my desire to help. I became a bit of a life coach to them, in the hopes of winning them a successful fresh start.
As I reflect on my experiences, I realize that at the end of the day, what most of us want out of life is to move past our mistakes and shortcomings to live meaningful lives and to enhance the lives of those we love. If we as volunteers can help someone else achieve that vision, what a purposeful, intoxicating mission!