For the past two years, I’ve been working to develop Connections, a program for preschool-aged kids on the autism spectrum. I started Connections because of my older brother, Matthew, who is on the autism spectrum. When he was young, there were very few social opportunities available, especially during the summer when most kids were at camp having fun. Recently, he commented on feeling as if he missed out on many regular childhood experiences. I started dreaming about a program that I thought he would have loved, to give more kids the chance to have fun, bond with peers, and step out of their comfort zone. This dream gradually became the reality of Connections.
After a lot of advice from mentors and careful planning, I received a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to fund the program. Next, I had to find the right place to hold the program, and Temple Sinai was the ideal place to do so. I sat down with Rabbi Goldstein to brainstorm details about Connections, and at first it seemed like a crazy, far-fetched idea. With the help of an incredible Occupational Therapist, Speech Language Pathologist, and Special Education Teacher as well as the dedicated Temple Sinai staff, we brought this to life. The few programs that exist for children with autism are primarily therapeutic. Connections was made with a different focus: I wanted our kids to learn, connect, and grow through play and for the synagogue to become a safe and familiar place. We made sure it was free of charge so that it was accessible to any family that wanted to participate.
We held our first session in August, and it was a fantastic week. We had circle time, read books, sang songs, and ran through obstacle courses. We played in water, rice bins, and with paint. Throughout the week, I saw a tremendous shift in the kids: their faces lit up when they saw their new friends and they jumped straight into new and unfamiliar activities. By the end of the week, the kids were inseparable and were running around the synagogue as if they had been there forever, as well as engaging eagerly with all the kids in the Temple Sinai camps.
I want to thank the Connections families for trusting us with their wonderful kids during our inaugural year. Our team loved seeing the kids every day and excitedly looked forward to helping them navigate the challenges of a complex world in a nurturing, safe environment. I’m proud to report a huge transformation in everyone touched by this program, especially the temple. This program helped further Sinai’s mission of inclusion and acceptance. What unlocked this potential was a committed and experienced staff, a welcoming, open-minded atmosphere, and the children’s willingness to grow. It’s difficult to embrace a new idea and a new program, yet the children, their families, and Temple Sinai did so with grace and sensitivity.
Now I’m dreaming again, and this time about next summer. I hope to expand Connections to serve more kids. This will require hard work to secure funding and support from new sources. No matter what, it will be worth it. I can’t wait to see what will happen in the future.
Coordinator’s Note: This is the second in a series of Sinai Stories by or about Temple Sinai youth.
– Sophia Lager