Special-needs volunteers at the JGH gain as much as they give
Visitors from Friendship Circle brighten patients’ lives with smiles and flowers
As Dora Spoltore, a grateful JGH patient, spreads her arms to hug Shaun Benharroch and thank him for his gift of flowers, a look of unease suddenly crosses his face.
This is out of the ordinary for Mr. Benharroch, a young man with special needs, who is accustomed to volunteering at the hospital and accepting an occasional hug after handing a small bouquet of roses to smiling patients.
But now something is different; Ms. Spoltore isn’t smiling. The tear that’s trickling down her cheek is making Mr. Benharroch nervous: Maybe she’s in pain!
“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” reassures Rabbi Leibele Rodal, who is supervising the visit. After a moment of indecision, Mr. Benharroch overcomes his doubts and returns the hug. He’s also relieved to see a smile on Ms. Spoltore’s lips.
What Mr. Benharroch has given to this patient is flowers; what he has received, besides a warm hug, is a new appreciation for the notion of tears of joy.
His experience is precisely why visitors from the Friendship Circle of Montreal keep returning to the JGH. Not only do they offer patients (and staff) flowers, good cheer and a break from routine, they gain the realization that they, too, are capable of giving of themselves as volunteers, in addition to being the frequent recipients of guidance and support.
“They derive such great satisfaction from bringing light and happiness to others,” says Rabbi Barak Hetsroni, the JGH’s chaplain, who has worked with Rabbi Boruch Edelkopf, Operations Director at the not-for-profit Friendship Circle, to arrange regular visits since last fall. “I see satisfaction in the eyes of everyone who volunteers at this hospital, but in this group, I see it much more.”
Rabbi Hetsroni explains that these visitors have various physical or developmental disabilities, including blindness, autism, neurological disorders and Down syndrome. However, they also possess the kind of sensitivity that motivates them to help ease the pain or discomfort that they sense in other people.
On this sunny Sunday afternoon in late May, about 14 visitors—ranging in age from their mid-teens to their early 20s—gather in the lobby of Pavilion K after their short walk from the Friendship Circle, located nearby at Bourret Avenue and Lavoie Street.
Rabbi Rodal, Assistant to the Executive Director of the Friendship Circle, divides them into two supervised groups that spend about an hour going from room to room on various floors of Pavilion K.
Typically, a supervisor first checks with a patient to be sure that he or she is open to a visit. If so, one or possibly two members of the group greet the patient, present a bouquet of roses and express their good wishes.
Today, 16-year-old Chaim Wenger has taken the extra step of putting on a protective yellow gown to drop in on a patient whose illness requires precautions to be taken.
On the ninth floor of Pavilion K, Nurses Vanessa Vincent, Samantha McCullough and Felicia Hua are taking a break when the visitors pop in with roses for each of them. Surprised and appreciative, they thank the young men, with Ms. McCullough adding that the visitors “brighten the patients’ day, which is great, but it’s so wonderful of them to think of us, too.”
“Why shouldn’t nurses get flowers?” says Rabbi Rodal. “They work so hard for the people they care for, and when we make them happy, those feelings are passed on to the patients.”
“These kinds of experiences sensitize our young people to the fact that there are those who are less fortunate than them,” says Sima Paris who, with her husband, Joseph Paris, co-founded the Friendship Circle in 2003 to help individuals with special needs gain opportunities to become contributing members of society.
“They realize that we all need love, regardless of who we are, how we look or what our backgrounds may be. We emphasize inclusiveness and we encourage acts of goodness and kindness, because we all need someone to share our feelings with.”
The visits to the JGH also bolster the philosophy of the Friendship Circle that “every child with special needs has some sort of talent,” Mrs. Paris adds. “They may be weak in some areas, but there’s no question that their talent is there to be discovered and celebrated.”