Featured Autism United Story Authored By Lena Rivkin
I wish I knew what came first – my parents’s incredible spirit of volunteerism or having a child with autism. Since I was born after Phillip, and since our parents have passed away, I may never know. I suppose it doesn’t really matter – whether Phillip’s special challenges awoke my parents to dutifully attend to the needs of other children with special needs, or if my parents were attuned to people with higher risks and higher needs all of their lives. But what I do know is I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who taught me early on about the gift of giving.
All year long, my parents collected toys and books donated by companies. Then they’d invite friends over to wrap the gifts. I loved how the food and drink and laughter made these nights feel like a holiday party.
My parents even included me when we went to hospitals to give the gifts to children with special needs. Since I grew up with a severely autistic older brother, I wasn’t uncomfortable surrounded by children with special needs.
We are a giving country. Americans donate and volunteer more than any other country in the world. But there is an untapped reservoir of volunteers – our children. There are endless benefits to raising our children with a spirit of volunteerism: making a positive difference in the lives of others; realizing that no matter how young, a child can still help and teach; helping others creates empathy and tolerance which in turn may combat bullying.
Feeling needed helps develop self-esteem and problem-solving skills; and ultimately, helping others opens a child’s world to the enormous possibilities that lie within them.
My favorite day of the year is the annual Very Special Arts Festival (VSAF). Art, dance and music is created in a blissfully frenetic pace by the hundreds if not thousands of children with special needs who pour into the Music Center Plaza in Los Angeles.
The much anticipated event this year was held on May 3rd and for the artists and volunteers and especially for the students, teachers, aides, caregivers and families from the Los Angeles County Office of Education Special Education Programs and the Los Angeles Unified School District schools, it was Christmas, Hanukkah and everybody’s birthday, all rolled into one huge party! Suzy Boyett, program and events manager for the Music Center and her wonderful staff, tirelessly produce the Very Special Arts Festival.
Prep for the VSAF starts months in advance. The Music Center Education Division comes up with the Festival’s annual theme and each contributing artist develops a workshop around that theme. This year’s theme was “Into The Future”. Other artists create workshops incorporating “Into The Future” with musical, theatrical, dance and even gardening activities. As a visual artist, I was to develop an art project for the children to create.
Along with sharing my creativity with children, another blessing of the Festival are my good friends who volunteer to help. Liz Loya and Charisse Hewitt Webster take off from their super busy lives and careers to help out. This year was even more special (for me) as Tyler William Webster, who is Charisse’s 7-year old son, took the day off from school to volunteer.
Tyler, who is very kind, bright and imaginative, was very eager to come to the festival and help out. As the thousands of students poured into the plaza, Tyler shyly retreated into the arms of his father Randy. As almost all the Special Education students from LAUSD attend the VSAF, it must have been deeply overwhelming for Tyler. But as the children swarmed our workshop, Tyler became more comfortable with helping the children, and lost some of his self-consciousness.
My heart overflowed as Tyler gently guided, directed, aided and encouraged each child to make the best possible mask they could create for themselves. We worked for hours in the mid-day sun with hundreds of kids and were rejuvenated and refreshed by each new wave of child-like excitement and the joy of creation. The children loved having a fellow child who treated them as a friend.
Tyler, my youngest volunteer, was as happy as the children he was helping. By the end of the day, it was clear Tyler had lost all sense of the other children being different than he. They were all working together making their masks that represent the future.
Giving a monthly check to a deserving charity goes a long way to helping others. But the greater gift lies in donating actual time and talent. And I don’t mean donning hair shirts and giving away all earthly belongings and living in a yurt. Even an hour a week at a retirement home or as a Big Brother or Big Sister can make a meaningful difference in another person’s life. The unexpected dividend is what the giver receives – a true sense of purpose, of having done even one simple act of kindness to make another person’s life better.
Because of ongoing budget cuts and more austerity measures, volunteerism is thriving. A friend and her teen sons volunteer weekly at a homeless breakfast. Big Sunday is a fast growing California organization dedicated to volunteerism and community service. Upon visiting the website, I was struck that almost all of the volunteers pictures on the site are children, which proves you are never too young to volunteer.
Parents teach their children how to be people. Good parents teach their children how to be citizens of the world. Great parents teach their children that the best gift one can receive is to give.
If more of our children could be involved in volunteering and we could have more Very Special Arts Festivals and Big Sundays, we’d be looking into a very special future for all of us.
Lena Rivkin, M.F.A., is an artist and graphologist living in Los Angeles