Why I Ride (tandem): Jessi Solomon.

I am so excited that my new friend, Julia, and I will be riding tandem in the 2014 Rodman Ride for Kids. This past June, I moved to Boston to accept a first job as a physician: a residency in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities at Boston Children’s Hospital – and Julia is among my new friends here.

We were introduced through JBBBS’ Friend 2 Friend Program three months ago, and she has already influenced my life more than I expected she might. I was drawn to Friend 2 Friend right away. I went to college and medical school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where I was active in the school’s Best Buddies chapter and where I was introduced to my Best Buddy (and now best friend), Christy. We changed a lot in those eight years and achieved a lot together.  When I moved to Boston, I knew I wanted to have another friend with whom I could try new things, inspire/be inspired, and spread the word about how wonderful it is to live in an inclusive community. To me, friendship is the most meaningful way to truly include people with disabilities in the community.

With Julia, I’ve replicated that experience. She loves William Shakespeare, musicals, good food, and hanging out with friends. I love bike-riding, music, hiking, performing arts, and hanging out with friends. We enjoy some of these activities in common, and we love discovering new things.

Julia and Jessi, tandem.

Julia and Jessi, tandem.

Recently, we picnicked and watched a Shakespeare on the Common production of “Twelfth Night.” I was in awe of Julia’s complex understanding and appreciation of the arts; she understood the language and humor better than I, and her enthusiasm enriched the experience for me. In just the past three months, I have tried Russian food for the first time, Julia has been sailing and biking for the first time, we have listened to music, played music, enjoyed art galleries, attended cultural festivals, learned about each other’s families, and talked about our days at work over the phone. I know the friendship has meant a lot to Julia, as it has for me. Recently, we spent a full day together exploring Boston, giggling, bicycling around, and meeting new friends. “Jess, you’re spoiling me,” she said. Both of us truly appreciate the time we spend together; we’re always finding more in common and lots to learn from one another.

Julia had never ridden a bike before. I have been riding bikes since early childhood. In Nashville, I taught my Buddy, Christy, to ride a tandem bike, and we loved riding all around Tennessee.  Through that program, I helped create a tandem bike “team” of pairs of friends with and without intellectual/developmental disabilities. But, Julia and her mother did not think there would be any way Julia would be able to ride a bike. She’d never tried. Because I am pretty small, they thought Julia and I would not be able to balance on a tandem together. In truth, it is not easy for anyone to bike on a tandem, especially when first learning to balance/focus together. As the name “tandem” implies, every movement must be made in tandem in order to ride without falling.

I reassured Julia and her mom that I knew Julia had it in her to ride. She is motivated to try new things, and I could sense that she would succeed. She did: We balanced on our first try and rode all the way around Jamaica Pond. Julia surprised herself and takes enormous pride in proving she can indeed achieve a goal her mother thought impossible. Her pride helps keep me going on the bike. Now Julia and I ride tandem at least once a week, and Julia trains on a stationary bike at the JCC. Together, we are training to support the Rodman Ride on September 20, to challenge ourselves to ride, to bond in the process through 25 miles of tandem pedaling. We hope to inspire other Friend 2 Friend pairs to challenge each other to pursue activities they may not have thought possible.

William Shakespeare said, “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” Through the Friend 2 Friend Program, Julia and I have begun to grow together. I know our friendship will blossom and that we will have many more meaningful interactions and experiences together.


A Friend 2 Friend Burger Adventure!

By guest blogger, Friend 2 Friend volunteer, Elaina Rivais.

When we were matched last November, I was nervous about finding fun things to do with my new friend, Lily. I wanted to get more creative than “dinner and a movie,” so we enjoyed a number of unique outings: a women’s basketball game, bowling, shopping. She even got to see my community band perform a dinner concert and meet some of my family, which meant a lot to me. Still, it turns out that having dinner together and seeing movies are some of the most fun times we enjoy as friends. We sing along to the radio while driving to the theatre and she picks movies I wouldn’t have chosen and might never have seen if I didn’t go with her. She’s also a great restaurant-picker. 

One night, she asked me if I’d heard of the restaurant Boston Burger Co. I had! In fact, I’d been there several times before. She had seen the restaurant on the show “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” and wanted to try their Mac Attack burger. The location I’d been to is right across the street from a Red Line stop in Somerville. I asked if she had ever ridden the T before, and she hadn’t. That’s when we started planning our adventure.

Lily and Elaina.

Lily and Elaina.

It was a couple of months later that the weather was nice enough to go and our schedules aligned. We rode the T all the way from Quincy, braving T stop construction, transferring from train, to bus, and back to train, grateful for accessible entrances and exits which made it simpler to transfer between platforms. Finally, we made it to Boston Burger, where we sat outside enjoying our gigantic hamburgers. Lily got the famous Mac Attack which, she said in between delicious bites, was “even better than (she) thought it would be!” We concluded our afternoon together with ice cream at J.P. Licks and departed for home: train-bus-train-riding pros! 

A long journey. An enjoyable day.

Now that we’ve ridden the T together, there’s no telling where we’ll go next! One thing’s for sure, we’ll be back to Somerville for some burgers and ice cream the next chance we get!

In Our Community: The Parent Perspective.

At JBBBS, we understand that meeting the needs of the participants we serve often extends to supporting the whole family, understanding the nuances of relationships with parents, grandparents, siblings and friends who have been impacted, in their own right, by their loved one’s participation in our programs. In this special, two-part, “In Our Community,” we caught up with Adele (whose daughters, Miri and Elana, were enrolled in the Children’s Community Program) and Ann and Isael, (whose daughter, Gabi, age 24, is a participant in Friend 2 Friend’s Community and MAGIC Programs). Here’s what they had to say about the JBBBS difference!

The Children’s Program

I looked to JBBBS for what seemed like obvious reasons: a newly-single, working mother with a 10-year-old and a toddler that required extensive support services at that time. My oldest daughter’s life was turned on its head, and she needed support I was unable to provide. I was unaware of just how much this would positively affect our lives.

I was immediately impressed by the level of care and professionalism staff took in getting to know my older daughter and the challenges that shaped her life at that time. The agency made a perfect match for her; they remain close to this day. My second daughter, a very different child, was matched about seven years ago. The same process on the part of the JBBBS clinical team was equally on target. My second daughter was matched with someone wonderful, and their match remains in place today. My daughters’ matches are special people, uniquely their own, who provided friendship, support, and wonderful role modeling. Their routine outings gave me a much-needed break, too.

The agency provided opportunities my children would not have had otherwise: Chocolate seders, Chanukah celebrations, baseball games, Blue Man Group. I am very confident in the JBBBS staff. I was glad for “check ins” with the matches, and I loved my independence from this process. I did find both of our social workers very supportive when I needed guidance about circumstances that affected our lives.

I learned JBBBS had scholarship programs to assist with the expenses of camp and, in later years, college. This had a profound effect on the development of who my children grew to be as young ladies. They enjoyed time free of worry and stress and a whole new support system of friends through camp. Currently, one daughter is enjoying camp and one daughter – my oldest, now a senior in college pursuing pediatric nursing – is staffing a leadership tour in Israel for counselors-in-training for the same camp. It has provided them with the beginning of a legacy of their own as they both discuss sending their own children to camp together! Not possible without JBBBS.

The impact of JBBBS and our Bigs clearly has had a major impact on our lives. I am personally indebted for the silent partnership, if you will, of helping me raise my daughters, to help them grow and reach their fullest potential.

Friend 2 Friend

We feel very lucky that Gabi connected with two different volunteer friends: one in each Friend 2 Friend’s Community and MAGIC Program. They’re doing wonderful things for Gabi!

We’ve watched Gabi take initiative to make monthly plans with her Community Friend, Arielle. Gabi and Arielle have gone bowling, shopping, swimming, Swan boating. Gabi so anticipates and enjoys these get-togethers.

In MAGIC, Gabi is matched to Zahava. Similarly, she has so much anticipation around MAGIG group.

Having two new friends in her life make Gabi happy; she knows that they care about her as she cares about them. Gabi has told us she feels a little more like other adults her age when she has the opportunity to make and keep plans with friends.

We know, though, that these relationships have done more than simply enriched Gabi’s social life. In addition to having fun and feeling more positively about herself, Gabi has learned important social and life skills from Arielle and Zahava. As her parents, we’re so grateful.


Where I fit: Finding my place at JBBBS.

Like most people, I am someone who wears many hats, someone who makes many costume changes throughout the day. I am a daughter, a friend, a girlfriend, a caseworker, a professional, an artist, a sibling. The list goes on. You can find me sitting on my roommate’s bed with her eating ice cream and talking all night, or front row at a show in some Allston basement cheering on my boyfriend’s band, or meeting my brothers at a movie theater to gorge on popcorn and soda. But a place that, until this past April, I never guessed you’d find me is a synagogue on a Friday night, a week before Passover.

In fourth grade, my best friend at the time was Jewish.  After sleepovers, I was once or twice invited to attend Saturday morning services with the family.  I didn’t mind. To the contrary, it was an opportunity to spend more time with my best friend. I embraced it. I reflected on the experience as I sat in Temple Beth Shalom on that Friday night. I was invited to attend services there in conjunction with my work in the Friend 2 Friend Program. And it seemed only fitting, an opportunity to spend a little more time with the clients whose company I enjoy, the work about which I’m passionate.

I’m not Jewish. I’m not religious. My relationship with Judaism starts and ends with my father and our shared love for Klezmer music. But, these days, I work for an organization with deep, proud ties to the Jewish community. And, admittedly, when I started, I expected some culture shock. It turns out, though, I fit right in. I fit in because the staff here share the same devotion to our clients, the same passion for the work.

So about being not-Jewish in a Jewish agency: I’ve learned a little more about the laws of Kashrut, the stories behind the holidays and community resources to help clients and families connect/reconnect with their Jewish identities. But more than that I’ve learned that by examining our differences, we only make them more obvious. Yes, it was different for me to attend Services, however, by focusing on the similarities I share with co-workers and participants I only see a group committed to mentoring, learning, discovering and growing.

– Mary Weinburg, Caseworker


Not everybody falls for talking pigs: The gift of difference.

Once, in the middle of a hellacious rain storm, I took a teething 11-month old shopping. Definitely it was ill-advised. Probably I had no choice. It was a few days shy of my husband’s first Father’s Day, and I hadn’t even so much as managed a home-made greeting card to acknowledge the way he weathered those early days of parenthood. So it was that I found myself in the middle of an independent book store with a crying – strike that, howling – infant and the sideways glances of strangers resting heavy upon my back.

Amidst futile attempts to comfort the baby, I reached for whatever text I could grab from that carefully-appointed table full of “Father’s Day” reads meant to appeal to a caricature of a dad (but probably not my husband): the history of the game of football, the art of grilling a perfect burger, common car problems and how to fix them. It’s the thought that counts (and I wasn’t thinking clearly): With one hand, I grabbed a book about the “gods” of rock and, with the other, held fast to my flailing baby, whispering something like a bribe that, in just a minute, I’d buy her a special book (or every book in the store), for entertaining her great mess of a mother with a shopping trip. Fresh out of good ideas, I beelined for the children’s section, where I snatched up the first colorful picture book I could find about a family of talking pigs. I began reading it aloud. “Piggies! ‘Mama Pig said to Papa Pig – ’”

“She hates that book,” interrupted a little voice. It came from a girl, perhaps seven, wearing a brown bob, thick pink glasses and a quizzical, disapproving expression. Her mother rushed to her side, coaxing her to mind her own business, apologizing profusely on her behalf.

“It’s ok,” I said, raising the metaphorical white flag. “She’s probably right.”

“I am right,” said the girl, shaking her head. “That book is terrible. Pigs can’t talk. You should read her this one,” she said, in monotone, passing me a hard-backed copy of Me…Jane, an illustrated account of the childhood and coming of age of Jane Goodall.

Deep breath. “Or maybe you can read it to her?” Mom looked on: Are you sure? I nodded.

My astute young friend, almost smiling, began to read. And immediately the baby was quiet. For the next 20 minutes she read book after book – biographies, volumes on science, math, history – out loud, a mesmerized infant perched at her side. Her mother looked on in disbelief (relief?) that somewhat mirrored my own.

When she finished – the clock struck 3:00pm, and my pint-sized superhero informed us that she had to leave for swimming class – she said goodbye to the baby. “It was nice to meet you. Maybe, if you come to this store at the same time next week, I’ll see you here.”

As she collected her things, she turned to me. “If your baby starts to cry again once I’m gone, remember that not everybody falls for talking pigs. I have something called Asperger’s. I’d never fall for a talking pig.”

The universe spoke: Getting to the heart of people involves paying attention to the stuff that makes us different, the stuff that makes us special, the stuff that makes us a gift. That afternoon in the bookstore, a small stranger – with her perspective, her insight and, yes, her less-than-subtle call to humility – was mine.

– Joni Kusminsky, J.D., Manager of Recruitment and Communications

April is Autism Awareness Month. For more information about Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders, visit Autism Speaks!


Being ok with silence.

When I came to work for Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, I contemplated which program I could support as a volunteer. Would I spend an hour a week having lunch with a Little Sister at school or weekends heading to Skyzone to burn off energy with a young girl in need of a positive female role model? Would I join a group, a good social opportunity for myself and a match in Friend 2 Friend? I debated, seriously and for a long time. Which program would allow me to have the most impact and feel that I was truly making a difference in an individual’s life?Leora and Melissa

Then, I came across the wait list for the Friend 2 Friend Community Program and saw a former Ramah camper on the list. I immediately found the answer. I would coordinate with the Friend 2 Friend program and work as hard as possible to be matched with Melissa.  Melissa and I had spent many summers together at camp, where I served as staff for over a decade. Summer after summer, I watched her grow up.

Friend 2 Friend serves adults with varying disabilities such as cognitive and developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, mild mental illness, Autism Spectrum Disorders or Traumatic Brain Injury. In the Community program, Friends get together from once to a few times per month and spend time doing activities they mutually enjoy: sharing a meal, visiting a museum, seeing a baseball game, bowling.

Eventually,  Melissa and I were matched. At our first Friend 2 Friend meeting, she came running down the hall screaming “Lee, you’re my sister, my twin sister!” I knew our time together would be special. Without a doubt, I had made the right decision.

Melissa and I have done a few activities since being matched in the program. We’ve enjoyed going for manicures, eating healthy foods and enjoying the occasional dessert. We even danced up at storm at the Friend 2 Friend Chanukah Party.

This month, though, we decided to do something different: An evening of cooking dinner at my house, taking the dog for a walk and painting our nails. We were not going out to do activities, rather staying in and laying low.

In the car ride home from my office, we talked a lot about her recent trip to Israel with her Ramah friends, the weather and all her new lip glosses. I learned about upcoming birthdays, more about her sister’s wedding and events at her group home. And then, there was silence. At first it was a bit awkward. Was I supposed to ask more questions? I had spent the last 20 minutes asking questions with Melissa answering them. So we sat in silence as we drove. While the silence felt awkward to me, it was clear that Melissa was fine. Truthfully, she does not have the social awareness to associate silence with “awkward.” (I could write a whole other blog post about how a little bit more silence in our lives may be a good thing.) She sat there smiling, watching the cars go by and taking in everything on the roads.

Once we got home, we discussed our dinner plans. It was going to be a healthy dinner of chicken fajitas with lots of vegetables. (Melissa pointed out that is must be healthy as there was broccoli in it.) She continued to tell me about all the new, healthy foods she was eating and about all the good food she ate in Israel. And, as we finished eating, we found ourselves in silence again. This time, with the Beach Boy’s, her favorite band, playing in the background. This time the silence was less awkward.

Just as I realized that sometimes it is actually about sitting there and being with each other and not having to say a word, Melissa began to sing along, at the top of her lungs, with the Beach Boys.

– Leora Kimmel Greene, Development Officer


Mythbusters: Top 10 JBBBS untruths debunked!

1)   It’s Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters. It’s not for me. I’m Christian [or Buddhist or Baha’i or Muslim or…].

Inclusion is a hallmark of progressive Jewish institutions. Sure, we have deep roots in the local Jewish community and strong, proud ties to it to the present day, but there is no requirement that one be Jewish to participate, as either a client or volunteer, in the life of the Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters agency. We welcome participation from individuals and families of all religious backgrounds – including people with no religious affiliation.

2)  Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters is a program of the Leventhal-Sidman JCC. 

It isn’t. JBBBS rents office space at the JCC. We like it here. We enjoy close working relationships with our colleagues at the J. That said, JBBBS is its very own entity.

3)  JBBBS exclusively serves individuals and families living in Newton.

False: We serve clients across some 90+ towns in Eastern Massachusetts. Our volunteers, too, come to us from all parts of Greater Boston, the North Shore, South Shore and beyond.

4)  JBBBS is a new entity.

No. JBBBS was one of the founding members of the Big Brothers Big Sisters movement in the United States. Our organization was founded in 1919 and has been in continual existence since.

5)  JBBBS serves children.

That’s only part of the story! We do serve children. (We serve children ages 6-18 who could both benefit from, and actually want, an adult mentor.) But we also serve adults with disabilities through a program called, “Friend 2 Friend.” Participants in F2F, all adults with disabilities who seek connection and socialization with other adults, are matched to community volunteers for just that purpose.

6)  There’s no “need” in the Jewish community.

Yes there is. We’re quite sure of it, because we’ve seen it and experienced it firsthand. Some Jewish people are poor. Some Jewish people are sick. Some Jewish people are mentally ill. Some Jewish people have disabilities. Some Jewish people are socially-isolated. And some don’t talk about it. Frankly, we wish they would.

7)  I’m a young adult on a starting salary. I’d be happy to make a small gift to support the great work you do, but you couldn’t possibly benefit from this $20. 

Oh, yes we could. Those small gifts add up. Plus, we recognize that micro-philanthropy is one very important way young people cast their support behind those causes they care about the most! Show us the money.

8)  I’m somebody’s grandpa. I’m too old to be a Big Brother.

No you’re not! While JBBBS volunteers have to be at least 18 years of age and have completed secondary school, there’s no such thing as “too old” to volunteer.

9)  I don’t think I have the time to make a difference.

We’re pretty sure you do. Here’s why: While it’s the case that some of our programs stipulate that volunteers meet with their Little Brothers, Little Sisters or adult friends 2-3 times per month for a few hours each time, our Children’s School-Based Programs in Newton, Needham and Waltham and our Friend 2 Friend MAGIC program offer time-limited, predictable opportunities to forge mentoring-friendships. And even if now is the wrong time for you to volunteer in any ongoing capacity, it’s very possible we could use your support around some short-term initiative (i.e. planning or staffing an event).

10)  At JBBBS, it’s all about the match!

To be fair, it’s a lot about the match. We take great pride in bringing together Big and Little Brothers and Sisters and adult Friends who go on to have impactful, long-lasting relationships. But that’s not all: We also offer short-term counseling, camp and college scholarship aid and economic assistance to families experiencing financial hardship. We sponsor social events and operate a leadership program for young adults. The list goes on. JBBBS is a robust, happening agency!