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Power of the Group

Barbara Bensoussan

Faigie Schwartz, Brooklyn, NY // Nominated by Hadassa Nussbaum

Thursday, September 20, 2018

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I

met Faigie Schwartz when the two of us were in PA school at Touro Manhattan. After we finished school, Faigie began working summers at Camp Simcha’s infirmary. She realized that while there were lots of programs in place for children with disabilities, there was nothing out there for young adults who had physical disabilities but no cognitive or emotional disabilities. They’d age out of Camp Simcha and sit at home, while their non-disabled peers would be going out, traveling, enjoying life. Many of them are very bright people — a couple of writers, a social worker, even someone who was accepted to medical school but had to withdraw for health reasons. But no one seemed to be addressing their needs.

Faigie invited one of those girls to her home for Yamim Tovim, but she knew there were so many others who needed more of a social life. “I really have to start something,” she used to tell me. And then she did.

Starting around 2014, Faigie started a few informal get-togethers with young women — barbecues, pottery painting — and created a WhatsApp group for them. Then she became more ambitious, taking groups to Project Inspire shabbatons and several overnight group trips. This year, for the first time, she organized a special Taglit-Birthright tour for the group. In order to do it, she had to create a formal organization, which she called YALLA: Young Adults Loving Life Always.

Faigie started the group on a shoestring budget. It’s grown to include a group for young men too. Every need, every detail — from the medical necessities to the snacks — is taken care of. For the members, it’s a lifeline. Faigie is making a real difference in their lives.

 

Faigie Schwartz, an emergency room PA at NY-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, takes my call at Camp Simcha, where she’s wrapping up the summer and preparing to take her YALLA group on their maiden voyage to Eretz Yisrael.  

“Our members are young adults, and they don’t want to be anyone’s ‘camper’ anymore,” she says. “They mostly live at home, although some are in residences, and they want to participate in a social life and vacations like anyone else their age.”

The problem is that many of these young people are severely limited by their disabilities, which include cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, and familial dysautonomia. Others weren’t sick as children, but develop conditions in adulthood that limit their strength and mobility. “Today, the picture has changed drastically,” Faigie says. “Genetic testing has helped lower the incidence of some diseases, and we have better treatments for many conditions, so more and more people are outliving their illnesses.” But many require round-the-clock nursing care. And those physical constraints often mean that they are locked out of the rich friendships and shared experiences that add color and meaning to any young person’s world.

At first, Faigie thought she could take advantage of existing groups in order to help her new friends. In 2011, she took some of these young adults to Eretz Yisrael as part of a Yachad Birthright trip. But she wasn’t satisfied; the Yachad participants had cognitive as well as physical disabilities, and it wasn’t a good fit for her group. “Often people see the wheelchairs and assume our group also has learning disabilities,” she says. “My group was very sensitive about this, so it made more sense to bring them as a separate group.”

Faigie put the Yachad experience on her back burner and decided to focus on smaller get togethers. One Shabbos in 2014, she was sitting around a Shabbos table brainstorming ideas. Her friend and fellow PA Dena Fogel, who was involved in the earliest initiatives, was there with her eight-year-old daughter, who suggested the group’s first working title: BFFs (Best Friends Forever). (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 728)

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