February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. As part of our Federation’s commitment to inclusion, every week this month we will feature a blog written by either a member of our community, his or her parent, or a volunteer or professional working with one of our partner organizations that serves individuals with special needs.
We recently interviewed Maya Wernick, a teen volunteer at OurSpace. OurSpace is a Federation partner that provides a full spectrum of Jewish experiences for children, teens, and adults with special needs and special abilities. Maya Wernick is a junior at the Archer School for Girls in Brentwood, California. She has been a member of the Jewish day school system for 14 years and is an involved member of the community. She has been working with individuals with special needs for 3 years and loves every minute of it. She also enjoys reading and making fun desserts for her friends. Read why Maya is inspired to volunteer!
What inspires you about our Jewish community?
I am constantly inspired by the open-mindedness and willingness to accept others of the Jewish community. I love that no matter who you are, where you come from, or what values you stand for, we treat everyone with love, compassion, and acceptance. I also love that we are there to listen. The Jewish community is one of learning, listening, and understanding. I know that whenever something unfortunate happens or I am struggling with anything in my life, there will always be a home for me to come back to and be supported. Overall, I think that the Jewish community is unique in its acceptance of everyone and its eagerness to love every individual the same way, despite their differences, challenges, and values.
What does inclusion mean to you?
To me, inclusion means that everyone is provided with the same love, care, and opportunities for success. Inclusivity, to me, is treating every human being with the same respect as you would your best friend or a close relative. No matter who the person is, whether he or she is a student who has special needs or someone of a different religion or age, inclusivity goes much deeper than feigning tolerance just for the sake of receiving praise. I think it involves motivation to listen and understand others, especially those different from yourself, and an openness to not only tolerating people, but loving and accepting them with open arms.
I think often people claim to be inclusive, but their idea of inclusivity manifests itself as being remarkably superficial and includes condescending tendencies as well. Inclusivity is invalidated when someone only does it to seem like a good person or out of pity. To me, inclusivity is true acceptance that we are all equal and an openness to diversity and uncertainty. Inclusivity, especially of others in typically marginalized groups, is the epitome of the value “love your neighbor as yourself,” a key Jewish value and, in my opinion, the true key to a world without prejudice.
Why did you decide to volunteer at OurSpace?
I believe that people who innately have the privilege of not being marginalized by society have a responsibility to strengthen the voice of the underdog. When I was given the opportunity to do just that, I was immediately intrigued. But, when I first arrived at OurSpace, I realized that my job was not to strengthen the voices of the students with special needs, but to listen to their voices and really, truly, hear them.
I realized that I was a student too, one who was being exposed to an entire new world and community. I love each and every individual in OurSpace and do not treat them as clients, students, or inferior to me, but as friends, family, and my community. The best thing I gained from OurSpace and from interacting with any individual with special needs is new friends. Joining OurSpace has truly made me change the path of my life, and the individuals I have had the pleasure of getting to know the past 3 years have had such an impact on me that I have realized that working in this field is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I was not helping them strengthen their voices — they were helping me find my own.
What has been one of your most meaningful experiences thus far? Can you share a story or anecdote with us?
Let me tell you about Michael. Michael is a 20-year-old individual with Down syndrome, who was in the teenage Sunday school class that I was in about 3 years ago. He and I quickly became friends, and would always chat about his day, what big events were coming up, and what I most definitely needed to know about the movie Frozen. Then, Michael graduated from my class and started in the adult art class within the same program. But, he and I were determined not to let this faze us. Michael immediately put his number into my phone, took his own selfie as his contact picture, and told me to “text him just for fun!”
Since then, Michael and I share updates every Sunday about our lives, including his high school graduation, his new job at Gelson’s, and even his brand new Disney Villain phone case. But, one instance in particular stands out to me.
On Thanksgiving 2016, I was at home, checked my phone, and I saw I had a missed FaceTime call from Michael. I clearly called him back immediately, thinking something was wrong or he was in trouble. When he answered the call, I was happily shocked to find that he just wanted to wish me a “HAPPY TURKEY DAY!” We chatted for a little bit and then my cousins came over. I told him I had to end the call to see my cousins, but then Michael made the great point that I could just take him with me to see them. I then proceeded to hold my phone up and introduce him to every extended family member of mine over the phone, to all of whom he wished a hearty “HAPPY TURKEY DAY.” This was just one instance I can think of that shows how my volunteering work has led to a real friendship. Michael and I still text each other happy birthday (even if we mix up the days sometimes), and I always get a “rosh hashana sameach” text.
Overall, OurSpace has not just given me a place to grow, learn, and gain new experiences, but has truly provided me with lifelong friends.