NJ Jewish News: Summer joy in Lifetown
Livingston campus runs August camp for special-needs kids and volunteers
By Erica Landis, NJ Jewish News
Once you set foot in LifeTown in Livingston, you start smiling.
The first smile comes as you realize that each step on the short flight of stairs that lead up into the main entrance of LifeTown plays a musical note. You realize immediately you are in for something out of the ordinary – even extraordinary.
LifeTown is the evolution of the original Friendship Circle program that buddied up teen volunteers with kids of similar ages who had physical or developmental challenges. Beginning back in 2000, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum and his wife, Toba, began the Friendship Circle, providing activities for the kids to do together, minimizing the boundaries between different abilities. That relationship between kids has only grown inside this modern building, whose creators have everything possible to make everything inside it not only fully inclusive and accessible —which it is — but also, so much fun!
Opened in 2019, LifeTown is the manifestation of the heart and soul of this community, which is made up by volunteers, staff, families, and the kids who benefit from this truly all-play wonderland. It’s impossible not to enjoy yourself here.
“Go ahead, clap your hands,” Rabbi Grossbaum says to me as we walk into the momentarily empty gym on our tour of the building. I clap — there is no echo. “It’s a special ceiling that eliminates the acoustics for the kids who are sensitive to sound,” he said.
There is a ballet studio; a soothing, dimly lit sensory room with bean bag chairs and music, a climbing wall; and an indoor park setting with natural light and tree swings. Step into the beach room and you’ll be surrounded by calming seagull sounds, buckets, and real sand, all surrounded by a photographic mural of the Jersey Shore. There is a fully functioning kitchen where kids and adults were braiding challah in glorious piles of flour and dough while the smell of baking fills the room. In the art room, pipe cleaners were being twisted into creations. In the gym, a karate exercise included boards being broken with joyful “hi-yas!,” illuminated by smiles of accomplishment.
The space known as LifeTown is designed to look and feel like an actual downtown, so kids get real-life experience navigating a safe mini city. Rabbi Grossbaum scooped fresh hot popcorn for me right before we poked our heads into the dark theater filled with families, kids, and their buddies enjoying a movie. There is a salon where volunteers paint the nails of the program participants, a pet store with real fish and visits from local animal shelters, a mini supermarket where kids can “shop” for the ingredients they need to prepare a recipe, and a bank where experience working with real money is a valuable life skill. Or you can ride a tricycle around the track in LifeTown as you follow its traffic signals.
The newest excitement in the building is a zero-entry indoor swimming pool that brings the joy of water to everyone.
Jake Warter of Livingston, 15, is a volunteer with strong ties to the mission of LifeTown.
The football field at LifeTown is dedicated to Jake’s brother, Ryan, who died at 17 in 2018, six months after the field was dedicated. (The dedication included New York Jets players.) While he didn’t survive to see the completion of the building, a very moving picture of Ryan on that field hangs in the hallway along with many other inspiring glossy photos.
Jake is very excited about the new layer of inclusivity the pool adds. “It is so incredible to see the pool finished and in use,” he said. “It offers a space for all, regardless of their disability, to feel like kids. The zero-entry aspect of the pool makes it wheelchair accessible.
“I have volunteered with a child who is non-verbal. Every time I go in the pool with him, even though he can’t speak, his facial expressions are more than words can describe. At the deep end of the pool, there is a powerful jet. I always take him to the jet. If only you could hear the happiness and giggles that he makes. It lights up my world!”
The new pool, dedicated to the memory of Diane and Robert Goldberg of Livingston, lets physically challenged kids feel that calming weightlessness and freedom everyone enjoys. Water lessens physical barriers. The ease of the zero-entry and the comfortable warmth of the water helps kids with transition issues.
Gabriel Halpern of Livingston, 18, who graduated from high school in the spring, started to volunteer at LifeTown this summer, and his awe is still fresh. “They really have thought of everything,” he said. Get Gabriel talking about his first buddy experience and he gushes about his new friend, Ezra. “This kid is so smart,” he said. “I’m good at math — but he is really good at math. I had to check his answers on my calculator while we were playing around with problems just for fun.”
Gabriel said it took a little bit of time to adjust to this incredibly positive atmosphere, where every single kid is included. “I love it here,” he said. “And it makes me wish I would’ve done more volunteering throughout high school because it just feels so good.”
This year, for the first time, LifeTown offered camp to special-needs children for the whole month of August — until now, it was just for one week this month. Not only is that huge for the kids, and for the fun they have, but it also fills a void in the sparse field of special needs camps.
“As a volunteer, it is awesome to see kids excited about what the day has to bring,” Jake said. “There are tons of smiles, from the moment they walk in the doors at 9 to the moment they leave at 3. For so many kids with special needs, they attend year-long school, but instead of going to camp in the summer, many go to an extended school year program in July and don’t have many options for real camp.
“This summer, extending the camp to the whole month normalizes the camp experience. Kids with special needs can do what their siblings and peers get to do — just have fun in the summer.”
The words most often used to describe LifeTown on my visit were “a celebration” and “a gift that can’t be bought.” All the volunteers I chatted with had the same emotion. They truly had found their place.
“It’s so incredibly special to have the ability to create happiness in someone else’s life,” Jake said. “When you do a good deed, a mitzvah, it is a chain reaction. When you do good, you feel good. When you volunteer and you see the joy light up on your friend’s face, that makes you feel good.”
Jake has made many friends through volunteering. And for reassurance to anyone who may be afraid to volunteer with special needs kids, all the volunteers echoed a similar sentiment. “If anything gets too challenging or if you’re not sure what to do in a situation, there is always professional staff right there to help,” he said. “Every time I leave a program, I think how such a simple thing, like giving a little bit of my time, can have such a large impact on someone else’s life.”
The impact the volunteers have on the families is huge as well. “Knowing their kids are having so much fun allows parents to take a break from what can be very hectic days,” Jake said. “Everybody benefits from volunteering.”
Sharon Leshetz of Morris County, the mother of a 13-year-old son with special needs, is thrilled with how LifeTown has impacted her son. “On the pool’s opening day, he was wheeled into the water with a brand new water wheelchair, and he was able to enjoy himself along with his group,” she said. “The children came home with something delicious they had baked in the spotless kitchen each day, along with beautiful crafts they had created in the art room.”
Her 4-year-old son, who is neurotypical, goes to a program at LifeTown too, she added. “Lifetown wants to make it as easy as possible for a special needs parent, so they have a siblings program. We only have to worry about one drop off. Isn’t that incredible?
“The LifeTown Shoppes continuously give my children the opportunity to experience life skills not offered anywhere else. And the teen volunteers always show warmth and compassion as they work with my children.
“I often call LifeTown ‘the greatest place on earth’ and it’s a very fitting description,” she concluded.
There is an energy at LifeTown. It’s filled with a spirit of celebration for everyone who walks through the doors and up those musical steps. The comes from volunteers, the staff, the surrounding community, the donors, and every single child who otherwise may have been overlooked, and they all feel it. As Rabbi Grossbaum relayed to me a beautiful teaching, “If the heart and soul are there, the rest is just details.”
Heart and soul are in every nook and cranny at LifeTown.