Photos courtesy of Janet Ettenger
The Pepperdine Volunteer Center is entering its fourth year of active involvement with the Hand in Hand program at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. The program pairs youth with mental and physical disabilities with college or high school students their age to promote friendship and inclusion, according to the Hand in Hand website.
Pepperdine volunteers interact with young adults with special needs every Thursday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. About six to eight Pepperdine volunteers work with 10 young adults in Hand in Hand, according to Pepperdine junior Audrey Lopez-Synder.
As a third-year volunteer with Hand in Hand, Lopez-Snyder described the program as “an active display of empathy.”
“There is such a deep kindness among the people you meet, the people who run the program and the friendships you establish. As young people, we naturally hang out with people our own age. For [those with special needs], they are constantly around people who aren’t their age: parents, doctors, nurses. Hand in Hand provides them with a sense of normalcy. We validate that they are loved and that is an amazing thing to be able to do,” Lopez-Synder said.
Weekly sessions with Hand in Hand include cooking recipes, doing art, building projects and creating crafts. These activities serve as therapeutic and educational experiences for the young adults in the program, according to the program’s website. Basic skills are reinforced and certain motor functions are strengthened with these creative and physical tasks. During these activities, the social interaction that occurs between student volunteers and the youth they interact with, also known as “buddies,” is another essential component to why Hand in Hand has such a positive impact, according to the website.
For sophomore Molly Adams, this social interaction is her favorite part about volunteering with Hand in Hand.
“There was a moment when we were all dancing and I was with this boy named Brent,” Adams said. “I was spinning and singing and holding Brent’s hands, dancing with him. His eyes grew wide with joy and he laughed and beamed with incandescent, infectious light. His aid was so thrilled she started taking pictures of us dancing together. I just love making connections like that. I live for those moments.”
Janet Ettenger, one of the co-founders of Hand in Hand, described the program as the simple act of bringing people together.
“Hand in Hand provides [those with special needs] the opportunity to be with peers they do not necessarily have access to. We give them a space to be who they want to be while still respecting their individual differences. On the other hand, volunteers learn that once they peel away the disabilities they see on the surface, these young adults are people who have the same emotions as we all do. They seek emotional expression, belonging and connection just as much as we do. Hand in Hand reminds us to see people as just people,” Ettenger said.
Hand in Hand launched in 2010 due to the collaboration of Ettenger, Marcelo Gindlin and Lisa Szilagyi. The program is searching for more student volunteers as it carries through to its seventh year, Ettenger said.
Junior Caren Rosen, the Pepperdine Volunteer Center’s Health and Wellness coordinator, said volunteering gives students a reprieve from academic worries and a chance to learn from people outside of Pepperdine.
“Once you volunteer, it becomes a humbling experience to meet different groups of people than the ones you see on campus. [Hand in Hand] has become a learning experience for me to see how challenging it is to live with disabilities. Yet, the most inspiring part is seeing how [the buddies] are still so happy with who they are,” Rosen said.
To volunteer with the Hand in Hand program, stop by the Pepperdine Volunteer Center to sign up. Transportation to the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue is provided for the first nine student volunteers.
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