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 Rachel O’Kelley, an 11-year-old 7th grader at Bridges Academy, a school for “2e” (“twice exceptional”) kids. Rachel has participated in the Nes Gadol Program at Federation’s partner organization Vista del Mar for several years. Nes Gadol provides Jewish education and B’nei Mitzvah and confirmation programs for children and teens of all abilities. Rachel enjoys helping people through community service and performing stand-up comedy. She also loves art, video games, watching movies with her family, and, most recently, horseback riding.
What has been one of your favorite moments or experiences you have had this year with Vista del Mar?
Spending time with Rabbi Jackie’s mom, Doli Redner. At first, we would spend holidays at temple with Ms. Doli, which was great because we don’t have living grandparents. Once, we went to visit her in the hospital and she unofficially adopted us. My family and I try to spend shabbat with Ms. Doli and her husband Aron when we can. They are both Holocaust survivors and are a very big connection for us to Jewish life. Ms. Doli has taught me how to knit and inspired me to start a program called “You Write, I Read.”
What do you wish people knew about you?
That when I started Nes Gadol I was very shy. By participating in the temple services, I have become more confident, and I feel more like I am a part of a Jewish community. I have a lot of trouble with word finding and memory, so a lot of times my words don’t come out right when I am communicating. At Nes Gadol, I have met kids in my class who are nonverbal, and we still are able to communicate.
How do you advocate for yourself and how does that make you feel?
The way I advocate for being Jewish and on the spectrum is I try to live my life as an example. I try to be aware of my behavior and my actions because I am representing both the Jewish and special needs populations.
What inspires you about our Jewish community?
I am inspired every week by my fellow classmates in the Nes Gadol program.
What is something you wish you could change about how others perceive individuals with special needs?
I wish I could change the way people look at the disabilities of individuals with special needs, instead of looking at their gifts.
What does advocacy mean to you?
It means making a difference and going beyond standing as an example for others in my special needs and Jewish communities. I have found that performing stand-up comedy has helped me build social skills and I can use my humor and writing to break through social barriers. Advocacy means standing up to and for something you believe in. My mom is my biggest advocate! She sees the best in everyone and strives to shine a light on the goodness all around us. My brother is inspiring to me as an education advocate.
Why is awareness important?
I think it’s important to be aware of all people around you and try and be helpful because you never know how you can make a difference.
What are some easy ways to become more aware?
An easy way to become more aware and more compassionate is to go online and research causes and human conditions that you are interested in but not informed about. I like to use art to bring more awareness to issues that are important to me, and my art makes me happy. I recently designed a coloring book through a school project that educates people about a disease called Biliary Atresia. My twin sister was born with this disease and had to have a liver transplant. She is now a Liver Ambassador for the American Liver Foundation and an advocate for the Painted Turtle Camp. I now see how becoming more aware of this disease has started me on a journey to get my coloring book out there to educate more people about this disease.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles provides those with special needs with greater access to quality services and programs that enhance daily living and inclusion in our community. The Los Angeles Jewish Abilities Center (LAJAC), the community resource for Jewish adults with special needs and caregivers, is an initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. This strategic response to increased communal needs was launched with support from a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. We have created an accessible platform that will empower people of all abilities and all ages to access the tools and resources they need, promote collaboration, and live meaningful, purposeful, and Jewish lives. To learn more about LAJAC, visit www.lajac.org.