For typical families, life can be hectic Most are consumed with child-rearing, finances, meals, errands, and the like.. For families of special needs children, though, the stress of meeting these obligations can be overwhelming. These families especially appreciate The Special Children’s Center, which runs numerous programs geared toward the special needs population and their families at branches in Lakewood, Deal, and Brooklyn.
The Special Children’s Center, affectionately known as “The Center,” brings joy to each and every family as it eases their burden. The Center’s primary branch is in Lakewood, New Jersey, where it services approximately 150 children. The Brooklyn branch was launched over a year ago, and currently services thirty-two children.
Each Center provides structured after school and Sunday programs where professionals and volunteers teach the participating children about parasha, hagim, and mitzvot as well as life skills, social skills, and independence skills. In the summer the Center runs a fabulous eight week day camp in Deal, as well as a shorter pre-camp and post-camp. The Center provides babysitting, group homes, vocational training for special needs adults, extended weekend trips, an annual Disney vacation, Hol Hamoed trips, and other events throughout the year.
Perhaps most poignant are The Center’s two Hanukah programs, a fantastic Yaakov Shwekey concert and a fun-filled toy drive event.
On Center Stage
On Hanukah, Mrs. Jenine Shwekey and Mrs. Chaya Bender, founders and directors of The Special Children’s Center, organize an evening concert which features renowned singer Yaakov Shwekey and The Center’s very own children. The event, held in a large auditorium in Jackson, New Jersey, is exclusively for special needs children and their families. The concert hall hosts about 175 special needs children together with their parents and siblings. The Center even arranges transportation for the Brooklyn families. As each special child enters the auditorium, he or she receives a number and colored ticket, which indicate the child’s assigned song and time to shine on stage right along with Yaakov Shwekey.
“Having a special needs child or sibling is not easy,” The Center’s volunteer coordinator says. “This event, however, makes it beautiful for them. The concert makes parents and siblings feel proud to have a special needs child or sibling.” Tzipora, the parent of a child with Down Syndrome, relates, “The Center created a concert for our community where there are actually children who are jealous of mine! They say to my kids, ‘You have a sibling that’s in The Center?!’ They took something that used to be pitied and looked down upon and made it special.”
The volunteer coordinator describes the excitement as each child goes up to join Shwekey on stage for a song, singing into the microphones and dancing. Tzipora says, “Yaakov [Shwekey] has such a special touch with the kids. A lot of them enjoy the stage… and they are never given a chance.” The children, she adds, feel so important. “Everyone is cheering for them. They are the stars!” she says with a wide smile. “Special needs children love music, and it’s beautiful to see the children in the limelight,” the volunteer coordinator enthuses. “You have to be there to truly get a feel.”
Tziporah recalls how Shwekey once held her smiling son, then two-years-old, while singing a slow melody. “My children were pointing and saying, ‘David’s on stage!’ and my heart was smiling.”
At the end of the two hour program, the children enter the lobby to meet “Mitzvah Men,” who distribute wrapped gifts – one for each Center child and another for his or her siblings to share.
“I participate in a lot of The Center’s programs, but there’s something about the Hanukah concert,” Tziporah muses. “It brings all the families together. There is a common denominator [between us], no one is judging and everyone’s comfortable.” She notes that the concert is completely geared toward the special children and is also “an amazing night out.”
“The children are on such a high, and they go home feeling great,” the volunteer coordinator relates. Tzipora adds, “And that is just one of the many things that The Center does for the community.”
Gifts to Remember
The Hanukah Toy Drive, run by Mrs. June Aboksis of Junees Modest Apparel, is another exciting Hanukah event at The Center.
“We don’t just give out toys,” June says. She, her “Junee Crew” (as she refers to her staff at Junee), her children, and their friends travel to Lakewood one day of Hanukah and spend a fun-filled few hours with the children there. “We go and have a party!” she exclaims. June and her staff come fully equipped with a DJ and music, and they sing and dance with the children at The Center. At the end they distribute toys to all the children. Mrs. Jenine Shwekey and Mrs. Chaya Bender join in the festivities too.
“If you come, you’ll cry,” June says. “You see the kids’ faces. They’re singing ‘Hashem Melech.’ They’re dancing, they’re screaming, and they’re sweating, and most of all, they’re happy!”
June’s company funds the buying of the toys, which June handpicks. In the past, she and her group have distributed makeup sets, pocketbooks, and more. At The Center, specifically, they prefer to give out music-oriented toys. “That’s what they need.” Last year the children received iPods fully loaded with the latest Jewish music.
June comments that for the special needs children, “It’s not even so much about the toys themselves. Some don’t even understand. It’s really about being mesameach the children.” June recalls that once a parent came into her clothing store crying from happiness as she handed June her note of appreciation.
“I could never give this up!” June exclaims. We love it!” She describes Hanukah as her favorite time, which she waits for all year. “We enter the Toy Drive one way and leave another, and we go home with the best feeling.”
June and her group of volunteers arrange similar toy drives for a number of special needs institutions and hospitals throughout the week of Hanukah.
June parts with a message to view Hanukah in a whole new “light.” “Appreciate life! Hashem gives you and you have to give back; it isn’t just one way.”
That positive type of attitude towards hesed enables the coordinators of The Special Children’s Center to do their work. During Hanukah, both the Shwekey concert and toy drive give boundless joy to special needs children and their families.