I recently met the most exceptional individuals. Some were college students, giving their time and TLC, while others were paramedics and doctors who were not working a shift for pay or compensation, but lending their expertise free and without hesitation. They were from the Jewish non-profit and all volunteer-based Kids of Courage.
It was a transfusion of sorts for me, a shot right to the cerebellum ushering in the realization that selfless people do exist and in a class above the rest. Kids of Courage, a Jewish "make a wish on steroids" according to its founder, Stuart Ditchek, M.D., was established to provide year round trips for kids with special physical and medical needs. The organization simultaneously focuses on respite care for the families -- families that care for kids with special needs 24/7 and rarely get downtime or a date night. I was telling one of my friends about Kids of Courage, how they had taken 140 kids on a trip to Orlando on a chartered flight fully equipped with medical devices and personnel: "It is incredible what they're doing for these kids and their families," I remarked. My friend, whose teen suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), agreed that the organization and its staff seemed impressive beyond a doubt, but, she sighed, "What about MY special needs child?"
Mental illness is something that we often overlook as a "special need," but there's a need for more offerings within the Jewish community for children and young adults who suffer from anxiety, depression, OCD and other mental illnesses.
Kids of Courage gives kids with special needs the opportunity to socialize with one another. My friend says that is what her own Orthodox Jewish teen is lacking, a social system that is simultaneously supportive. It may be time to give "special needs" a larger umbrella. There is a stigma that still exists within various Jewish communities with regard to mental illness (i.e. "If I admit my child suffers from this, will he/she find a shidduch?"), and a tentativeness about reaching out to a potentially moody or aggressive adolescent.
Kids of Courage is comprised of confident, brave and selfless leaders. We now need a few more for the children and teens left behind, whether inadvertently forgotten or because some of us are afraid.