Ask the Expert – Heidi Solomon

In 2010, overwhelming devastation strained governments and humanitarian agencies following the earthquake in Haiti. Our teens and young adults saw the troubling images of toppled buildings, ravaged neighborhoods and despondent Haitians. They asked me, “What are we going to do to help?”

My first thought was Haiti is more than a thousand miles away across an ocean… and we know nothing about earthquake recovery or disaster relief. My second thought was YES! Our program is achieving its mission of encouraging our young people to accept responsibility to help the community both near and far. So, we went to work! We signed up to volunteer at MedWish International, a non-profit agency that sends medical supplies to third world countries such as Haiti. We also planned and hosted our first philanthropic event. We performed our play as a fundraiser for earthquake relief and collected $400, which the group chose to donate to Save the Children Haiti.

The Horvitz YouthAbility program of JFSA Cleveland empowers youth with disabilities and at-risk individuals by engaging them in volunteerism. As a YouthAbility coordinator, my team and I encourage our young people to help themselves by helping others. Our days, evenings and weekends are filled with a wide range of philanthropic activities. We garden, maintain a trail in the Metroparks, assist Holocaust survivors, create artwork, perform original plays with positive messages, help the homeless and more. We want our ambassadors to know that they have the responsibility and privilege of representing YouthAbility, the Jewish Family Service Association and all of the other wonderful people like themselves.

Most people referred to YouthAbility were only on the receiving end of services before entering our program. YouthAbility flips the paradigm. Our ambassadors are expected to be community helpers — and nothing less is accepted. Everyone has a gift to give. Everyone has the ability to help. Everybody has the responsibility to use their strengths to do what they can to support the community. It is important that we at YouthAbility volunteer because we are part of “everybody”. Once we had a lovely teenager who dearly wanted to help at her local swimming pool. She was visually impaired, non-speaking and used a wheelchair. We gave her a few bottles of sunscreen and her aide programmed her assistive talking device to ask, “Do you need sunscreen?” In hardly any time, she was off helping the pool guests protect their skin.

Communities that hope to be inclusive reach out to exceptional people and give them help. Communities that achieve inclusivity reach out to exceptional people and give them opportunities to be helpers!

Since our first fundraiser in 2010, our group has raised close to $25,000. Our ambassadors participate in social entrepreneurship projects such as delivering lunches, selling homemade cookies and making handmade greeting cards. Most transactions net between a quarter and a dollar but it all adds up. Our ambassadors keep track of the revenue, cost and net revenue. About three times a year, we host a mini-grant meeting to decide which agencies should receive our monetary donations. In the past, we have given to local, national and international programs. For example, in 2015, we raised $4,500 to support peace-building programs for orphaned refugee teenagers in South Sudan. This past summer we donated money to start a college scholarship fund for students pursuing careers in social work, psychology, special education or a related field. Our YouthAbility ambassadors helped to create the application and they will interview the scholarship finalists.

In the past few months, YouthAbility has been busy with the slew of hurricanes that affected the Gulf this fall. We did a fundraiser for victims of Harvey, collected supplies to send to victims of Irma and Maria, and hosted puppies rescued from Hurricane Nate. Each of these acts are just a small gesture but they are small gestures in the right direction. Our ambassadors are proud to be moving in the right direction with the larger community.

Just last week, I received an email about a school building for students on the autism spectrum which burned in the Santa Rosa fires. It is touching that the sender felt our group could make a small, meaningful gesture to support those students who are struggling without their school building. We are in conversation about what we might do and we are looking forward to helping.

At YouthAbility, we strive to instill a passion for volunteering in everyone we meet. Our ambassadors must know that we all have a duty to serve when we are a part of a greater, connected community. When want our young people to seek out the options in which they can give back in their own way.

A former YouthAbility ambassador described this need for volunteering in her life perfectly. She had a position at Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center at the time and on a particularly frigid winter morning, her mom questioned if she wanted to brave the temperatures and still go. She answered emphatically, “Of course I do! Most of the time I feel like a disabled person, but when I volunteer with YouthAbility I feel like a person.”

YouthAbility is young people volunteering. It is simple. It is necessary. It is beautiful.


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