For the 80 teen volunteers who devote time each week to brighten the lives of special-needs children throughout Monmouth County, it was a night to be honored.
Some 350 people, including local Jewish leaders as well as Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, attended the annual Hand in Hand dinner sponsored by Chabad of the Shore. The event was held April 25 at the Two River Theater in Red Bank.
But for many of teens, who help more than 40 families through Hand in Hand, the accolades seemed secondary to the rewards of spending time with special-needs children.
From the stage, Arielle Lang, 17, spoke tearfully of her relationship with Stephanie Altschuler, the girl she visits with Ilana Goldman, 16. All three girls are from Ocean.
“I consider Stephanie one of my greatest friends,” said Lang, adding that she could not think of anything that “had made such a great impact on my life as this.”
Stephanie addressed the gathering and called Ilana and Arielle “my best friends in the whole wide world.”
“They are nice to me,” she said. “They are hilarious and pretty. I really like having friends to listen to music with. The most important thing in life is friendship, and having friends makes life a lot easier.”
Also honored at the dinner were Susan and Henry Bloom of Rumson, whose son is a Hand in Hand volunteer, and Lane and Michael Rose of Rumson, whose son benefits from the program.
The honorees “were chosen to represent all special needs youngsters in the program and to honor all the families of volunteers,” said Rabbi Laibel Schapiro of Chabad of the Shore, told NJJN in a phone interview. “This is part of the philosophy of Chabad that every child is special. They have a soul, and our job is to really bring that out. Each soul is a piece of God. They have an important role in society, and they really change the lives of the volunteers.
“To change the prism through which people view these families and children is a very important thing.”
In a film about the program shown to the gathering, parents spoke of the isolation their children felt as other youngsters shunned them and the limitations placed on their own social lives by the time-consuming care of their child. Through Hand in Hand, they said, they have been able to connect with parents of other special needs children.
Mentalist Marc Salem provided entertainment.
Another parent of a special-needs youngster, Michael Rose, told the crowd that the program is “truly a life-changer for us.” His 10-year-old son, who is autistic, keeps a picture of his Hand in Hand friends in his room and talks about them all the time.
Guadagno, who said she hoped to be invited every year to the dinner, said autism is a serious problem in the state. She praised programs such as Hand in Hand that teach “how to walk in someone else’s shoes.”
The volunteers “learn not only to walk in the shoes of the children, but also in the shoes of their parents whom they are helping,” she added.
For more information on the Hand in Hand program or to volunteer, call 732-229-2424 or go to www.hhnj.org.