Peeking Behind the Scenes

After just a week on the job, Ellie Minsky oozes enthusiasm for all she is learning peeking “behind the scenes” at LifeTown, where she is the new assistant director of programming. Just 18, she has volunteered for 9 years for the organization, even serving as a president throughout high school. She now acknowledges that she never understood all the advance planning involved. “It’s cool to see how much goes into each program. It’s something volunteers don’t realize. We used to just show up on Sunday mornings and everything was ready.” 

Now she is the one ensuring kids have the right resources, checking information on computers about each participant. “If we’re missing an aid or an allergy for someone, everything would go awry,” she said. And she could be the one making sure the right food is ready for cooking programs, or making sure the recipes are out. “I’m learning every minute of the day. I guess that’s part of adulting.” 

After graduating from Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston this spring, she had planned to spend a gap year in Israel. At the last minute, however, she decided not to go and instead spend the year at home, working. 

One afternoon, before she even had a chance to send out resumes, her sister Ava, a Friendship Circle participant, needed a ride to a sports program. Ellie agreed to drop her off. When they arrived at LifeTown, an extra volunteer was needed, so Ellie agreed to stay. And when Toba came out to greet her and offered her a job, it was a no-brainer for Ellie. “I was so grateful! Everything just kind of fell into place.”

Ellie gets as much as she gives when she’s volunteering. She’s been a part of Torah Circle, a morning’s worth of rotating activities from art to gym to cooking, since she started volunteering and appreciates the consistency of working with a particular participant over several years. “I love seeing the impact kids have on each other and on the volunteers,” she said. “And it’s so amazing to see participants able to do so many things in this environment. At Friendship Circle, there’s nothing anyone can’t do. Every child’s need is met. It’s amazing to see everyone feel so empowered.”

Over the years, she added home visiting through Friends at Home, holiday programs and presidents meetings. But it’s really all about the interaction with participants, especially when she gets a hug, or sometimes, a picture from someone. She credits Friendship Circle with changing her perspective on life beyond Friendship Circle. “Sometimes, I see my neurotypical friends acting a certain way. Instead of getting angry with them, I take a step back and think of all the things that could be contributing to the person’s behavior,” she said. 

She’s not second guessing her decision to stay in New Jersey for the year. “I’m my happiest giving to others, and it’s so amazing the smiles you can put on people’s faces here. Everyone is so understanding and there’s no judgment,” she said. “LifeTown is like my home. I feel happy here.”

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