Friday, December 22, 1995

Synagogue teens work with kids from troubled homes

Synagogue teens work with kids from troubled homes
Jewish Bulletin of Northern California - December 22, 1995

Sarah Nathan, a teenager from San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, said she wanted abused kids to know there are good people in the world. Children who grow up with abuse "find it hard to believe that most people aren't beaten," she said.

Another girl volunteered to work with abused children because a friend showed up at school with bruises. Still another said a relative had suffered.

They didn't name the people they were talking about. But as the teens introduced themselves last week at a Jewish Family and Children's Services' training session at San Francisco's Parents Place, one reason for volunteering came to the fore: They wanted to learn what to do when someone they knew was in an abusive relationship.

The six girls, ages 15 and 16 and confirmation students at Congregations Emanu-El and Beth Shalom in San Francisco, are participating in an outreach program sponsored by JFCS' Dream House, transitional housing for women and children.

On Monday, the first day of Chanukah, the teens hosted an art workshop for school-age children from Rosalie House, a San Francisco shelter for battered women and children that refers clients to Dream House.

At last week's training session, Cindy Perlis, director of Art for Recovery, prepared the teens to work on the art project, which involved cutting out paper silhouettes of hands and pasting them on cloth in a collage with words and other patterns.

The interaction between kids and teen counselors while working on the project is more important than the art itself, said Perlis. "In the end, I hope it's a beautiful project. But I don't care."

JFCS program coordinator Amy Cooper agreed. "The main thing is to have some fun together," she told the girls. "This is an opportunity for kids who are isolated to get out and have some fun."

The children are not approaching the workshop with the thought, "I'm a kid from domestic violence," she said. They're viewing it as "going to a party."

Many of the teenagers at the training session already had their own perspectives on the matter.

When Julie Bernstein of Congregation Beth Shalom heard about this project, her reaction, she said, was "How could anyone not want to do this?"

Revital Heller of Congregation Beth Shalom said she would try to be the older high school friend to whatever child she was assigned to work with. Heller reflected that the children would look to the counselors as the counselors themselves had once looked up to older teen-aged girls.

"I thought my baby sitter was so cool," Heller said.

Therapists and coordinators training the counselors also emphasized that the main job was to be friends to the kids, not to push them in any way to talk about violence.

Rachel Kesselman, coordinator of volunteer services for Dream House, said Monday's "coming together of teen mentors and kids from Rosalie House was a wonderful success, both for the kids and the young women. There was a lot of interaction, a lot of sharing."

She expects the association between the teens and other groups of children served by JFCS will be ongoing. "It looks like it's going to be the beginning of a group of young women who seem committed to work together to learn about how they can impact the community, [becoming] part of the cycle of serving."