By 5TJT Staff
This August, a unique mix of Jewish teens from the tri-state area, Chicago, and Baltimore went on an incredible 10-day trip to the southern U.S. The trip was called Aryeh United. What made this trip different from many other Jewish teen tours is that it integrated high-functioning special-needs campers with mainstream peers as their social mentors. What also set this program apart was that the staff, including director Yoni Glatt and rabbinic leader Rabbi Moshe Grussgott, was all-volunteer.
The trip started out in the Smoky Mountains, where the campers had three action-packed days of whitewater rafting, horseback riding, Zorbing, tubing, and hiking. From there, the group headed down to Atlanta, where they toured Turner Field and visited the amazing Georgia Aquarium. Also in Atlanta, thanks to the generosity of the Coca-Cola Company, Aryeh United was able to go to Coca-Cola World for no charge. After Atlanta, the group was treated to some authentic Southern hospitality courtesy of the wonderful Jewish community of Savannah, Georgia and Rabbi Eli Lob. Finally, Aryeh United ended the trip in Orlando, with three incredible days at Wet N’ Wild, Universal Studios, and Universal Studios Islands of Adventure.
Mr. Glatt, who is the director of the teen tour organization Aryeh Adventures, said his motivation to start this particular trip came from many different areas. “I was really inspired by the work of organizations like Yachad, Kids of Courage, and Friendship Circle, and wanted to make a trip for a specific niche.” And that’s what he did. Aryeh United was designed for kids whose parents felt they were falling through the cracks. They felt their kids needed to be more mainstreamed, but at the same time knew that it wasn’t a reality quite yet. “I have very close relationships with some boys with special needs,” said Mr. Glatt. “I wanted to make a trip where they could feel like they belong, both with other special-needs kids and mainstream peers.”
The program was named after Mr. Glatt’s uncle, Ari (Edward) Lichtschein, who was murdered on 9/11. Mr. Glatt tells the story of how he and his uncle were walking on a boardwalk and in the distance Mr. Lichtschein saw a bunch of boys bullying another boy on the beach. He intervened and got them to leave that boy alone. As it turns out, the boy was autistic. “I remember how upset my uncle was when that happened,” said Mr. Glatt. “I think the United program is the perfect way to honor his memory.”
Indeed, there was an interesting mix of campers on Aryeh United. Some had autism, Asperger’s, or Tourette’s. Some were bipolar and others were manic. Some were intellectually impaired while others were intellectually gifted, yet were limited socially due to one or more of the aforementioned disorders. Yet they all found out that they had a lot in common. Together with their mainstream peers (including students from HAFTR, HANC, and DRS) and the absolutely incredible staff, they came together in a sincere and wonderful way. It didn’t matter what kind of handicap or limitations any one of them might have had, on United they were amongst friends. Kids who felt left out nearly their entire lives finally felt like they belonged. As a 16-year-old camper from West Orange, NJ said, “It was the first time in my life I felt popular.” Boaz Segal, a counselor from Woodmere, echoed similar sentiments: “This trip enabled kids who probably had very few, if any, friends growing up to make real friendships with kids who are just like or very similar to them. It’s an amazing thing.”
As the cost of raising a special-needs child can be nearly double that of raising a mainstream one, most of the kids on the United trip required scholarships. Fortunately, Mr. Glatt found key sponsors in G & S Technologies and Camp Lavi. “Camp Lavi was so thrilled to help make Aryeh United happen,” said Joey Hoenig, owner and director of Camp Lavi. “We look forward to giving more special needs teens the chance to do a trip like this in future.”
By all accounts, the trip was a tremendous success. E-mails poured in from the parents praising and thanking the staff for giving their children such a wonderful experience. As one camper from the Upper West Side said, “I had the best time I have ever had in my life.” And the euphoria was felt by the staff as well. Chloe Fein, a counselor on the program from Lawrence, said, “The smiles on the kids’ faces were contagious. Knowing that they were having such a great time was worth far more than any monetary amount. I couldn’t have worked for a more amazing tour.”
So what’s next for Aryeh United? Mr. Glatt hopes to run the trip again next summer and also plans to launch a Birthright trip for the special kids of Aryeh United. “I hope we can keep giving this gift to our campers and their families for years to come.”
To find out more information about Aryeh United or to make a donation, please visit www.aryehadventures.org/united. v