I confess: I am hooked, and was – almost from the beginning. Recruited by Linda Burger, CEO of Jewish Family Service in Houston, to develop an online Guide to Disability Services, I embarked on a journey that has been life-changing. I had no background in what, at the time, was euphemistically referred to as “special needs.” I had neither training nor personal experience in the field. Yet, intrigued by the challenge, I agreed to take on the job.
Beginning by searching for programs and services that I knew were offered by Houston’s Jewish communal agencies, I visited the respective websites: to no avail, and with increasing frustration. I knew the programs existed. I knew their names and I knew in which departments they were housed. Multiple searches within a site, trying different words and combinations of same, produced nada, gornish, nothing but error messages. What was I doing wrong? I tried external search engines, still nothing. If I, knowing the names of programs for which I was searching, could not find them, what must it be like for individuals who were desperate to find services?
With a small cadre of volunteer researchers who were computer literate, comfortable with Internet searches and able to describe the programs and services, we organized the Guide around categories of services, rather than diagnoses, and included only those local, state and national organizations that met certain criteria.
Posted on-line in early 2007, the Guide had over 30,000 hits in its first year. Thanks, positive feedback and suggestions for additional resources came in from parents, caregivers, therapists, Jewish communal professionals and others. It has undergone several revisions, the most recent in January 2013, when the Guide was distributed, on thumb drives, to attendees of the 2013 Reel Hope Film Festival Houston.
Jews who desperately want and need services within the community: parents, care-givers, individuals with a variety of challenges, have taught and sensitized me, heightened my awareness and fueled my growing passion for building a more inclusive Jewish community.
It is interesting, yet not unusual, that a volunteer opportunity can so change one’s life. Opportunities abound. Please join me, and thousands of other volunteers around the world, as we seek to fulfill our shared communal mission to “Welcome everyone…with joy.” (Pirke Avot 1:15)
Sandra Block started her career as an English teacher and went on to a career in non-profit management: she was the assistant director of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of St. Joseph County in Indiana and also worked as a consultant. Now she serves on the board of Jewish Family Service in Houston in addition to chairing that city’s Yom Limmud. And, of course, she is an avid volunteer, offering her services to both people with disasblities and the elderly.