Building an Inviting Community for All Teens
by Beth Lipschutz
NFTY teens do an amazing job of creating community. While Missouri Valley has always worked to be inclusive of teens with disabilities, we are continuing to learn how to truly be supportive in order to ensure the success of every teen. Inclusion doesn’t just mean figuring out what activities are appropriate for unique teens, but altering the environment in order support full participation of all teens. Leading the way are local youth groups, demonstrating the use of peer support in order to create a safe space for teens of various developmental levels to participate fully.
There are several youth groups around Missouri Valley in which teens with disabilities are active members. One local advisor credits the success of teens with disabilities to the neuro-typical members of the youth group. “In particular, our most successful participants have had a group of friends who, even outside of youth group, include the person who may not fit in as well. These friends know his range of abilities and are protective of him in different situations.” The relationship between the teens is able to extend outside of the walls of the synagogue and help alter a variety of environments to ensure the success of the teen with differing abilities.
Another advisor from a different youth group stresses the importance of allowing opportunities to build those personal connections by being flexible. She explains of a particular situation in which two middle school boys, one with Autism Spectrum Disorder and one who is neuro-typical were out in the hall when they should have been in class. They were having an organic conversation about a common interest. The conversation was allowed to continue because the teacher realized that both boys were gaining a valuable life lesson by learning about each other and creating a personal bond. That particular conversation may have been the start of a life-long friendship in which each boy supports the other on his own Jewish journey.
Research has shown time and time again the importance of building personal relationships in order to engage teens in youth group or other synagogue activities. Missouri Valley has demonstrated the success of these personal relationships locally as well as during regional events. When teens with disabilities registered for different Chavurot, I contacted their advisors to see what supports could be provided to ensure success. In several cases, the advisors let me know that their own youth group was always watching out for the particular teen and would make sure that he or she fit in and was actively engaged. The teens are learning to build genuine friendships with each other despite any neuro-differences.
NFTY-Missouri Valley has shown that it not only knows how to be inclusive, but also inviting to teens with different disabilities. The members have proven their ability to create an environment in which unique social relationships are allowed to flourish. I know that the NFTY teens are going to continue to build meaningful friendships with teens of all abilities. After all, they understand that knowing you might be included when you show up isn’t the same as being invited and supported.
Beth Lipschutz, MSW, is the NFTY-Missouri Valley Youth Programs Manager at the URJ.