Celebrating Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month

I recently finished reading Ora Horn Prouser’s book Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible embraces those with Special Needs.  While the book focuses mainly on Esau’s story, several other characters from the Bible are portrayed. Prouser has an interesting take on some of the most well known stories in the Bible and her book is just one example of the many strides forward the Jewish community has made regarding inclusion.

In the final days of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, I would like to share my appreciation for all the Jewish organizations that have helped propel dance4empowerment forward over the past few years. I have been very fortunate to have been introduced to and involved with several incredible programs, organizations, foundations, and people working to foster inclusive communities and provide equal opportunities for people of all abilities.

After my first introduction to people with disabilities at Camp Ramah New England through their unique Tikvah program, my passion for inclusion was immediately sparked and, since, I have continued to seek out opportunities to work with people with disabilities.  I am proud to have been a volunteer at Gateways for three years; working one on one with an amazing teenager who was passionate about his Jewish identity.  Watching him grow and develop over the many Sunday mornings we spent together, was one of the most influential and inspiring experiences of my life. Additionally, I am grateful to three amazing organizations in Israel that I visited two years ago that continue to inspire me with all the work that they do.  My visits to Beit Issie Shapiro, SHALVA, and ALEH: Jerusalem, were significant in teaching me the power of motivation and patience.  Each organization plays an important role in making Israel a more inclusive and accessible place for people with disabilities and are models for others around the world. Although they are oversees, I have made strong connections with each organization and always look forward to visiting them when I’m in Israel.

Lastly, I want to thank the Jewish organizations and people in Boston who have taught me valuable lessons, crucial to the success of dance4empowerment.  From Gann Academy, the pluralistic Jewish high school I attended, to the Diller Teen Fellowship, which I participated in as a sophomore when the idea for dance4empowerment was elevated, I have been supported and encouraged by these communities. Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Ruderman Family Foundation have been enthusiastic about the work I am doing and have been incredible mentors.  And, I would be remiss if I did not thank Massachusetts State Representative Kay Khan for her meaningful guidance and encouragement.

More recently, since coming to Emory University, I have found incredible support in Hillel International’s Social Startup Fellowship.  I am so proud to be a member of many diverse and important Jewish communities and I am thankful for the role that each and every one has played in teaching and inspiring me.

And, so, it is with all these organizations and people in mind that I am excited to celebrate Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month and to be fostering the inclusion of people with disabilities through dance.  I hope that through dance4empowerment, I can continue to make an impact on the inclusiveness of the Jewish community. With each new step let us hope that Jewish communities around the world will continue to become more inclusive and celebrate their members’ many abilities!

Dance, move, and empower,

Sierra

Excited to be Part of the Hillel Social Startup Fellowship!

Last week I was invited to join a select group of other college students in Washington, DC. I was not sure what to expect when I applied for Hillel International’s Social Startup Fellowship, a program designed to jumpstart or reinvigorate innovators and entrepreneurs on college campuses across North America.  I thought the program sounded like an interesting opportunity to work on developing dance4empowerment among other motivated and passionate college students.  Imagine my excitement when I was accepted and informed that training starts in early February at Hillel’s headquarters in DC!
In preparation for the kick-off training session, I learned about the other Fellows’ innovative ideas.  I was impressed by the diversity of the group and the commitment of each student to their own project. Since starting at Emory, I have not met other students working on projects like dance4empowerment, students who commit an abundance of time and passion outside the classroom, so I was really looking forward to joining a small community of young entrepreneurs.  When I arrived at our first meeting, I immediately felt the energy in the room and I was ready to start learning how to raise dance4empowerment to the next level.
HSSUF group pic
Through a series of seminars and activities lead by the amazing Hillel and PresenTense staff, I learned so much about myself and dance4empowerment.  I haven’t really had the opportunity to step back and access my plans and/or goals since dance4empowerment was initially conceptualized.  Now, with the completion of only a small portion of the Fellowship curriculum, my ideas and plans are expanding and developing in new and unforeseen ways; I am exhilarated for the next portion of the program.
In the coming weeks, I will be paired with a mentor in the field of my venture who will guide me in further developing dance4empowerment.  I am looking forward to meeting my mentor and learning as much as possible from him/her.  I have been extremely fortunate to have met many impressive and inspiring people throughout my journey with dance4empowerment and I am so excited to have been given this new opportunity to make dance4empowerment a huge success!
I will be sharing more blogs about my experiences in the Hillel Social Startup Fellowship.  Please stay tuned and thank you for all your support along the way!
Dance, move, and empower,
Sierra

Exciting dance4empowerment Partnership with the Miss Amazing Pageant

I am very excited to share with you that this past weekend dance4empowerment hosted another successful event!
Over the summer, the Boston Celtics hosted their annual celebratory ceremony for all the season’s recipients of the Heroes Among Us awards.  The ceremony was heart warming and it gave me the opportunity to meet so many incredible heroes in our communities.  It was at this event when I met Andrea Nevins, co-Director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Miss Amazing Pageant, which celebrates the abilities of girls and women with disabilities.  Creating a partnership with Andrea’s program was a natural fit and, so, this past Sunday, we hosted our first joint program.
d4e MAM 1
dance4empowerment and the Miss Amazing Pageant offered the women and girls who participated in the pageant an opportunity to dance and go home with a beautiful party dress!  Sivan Elefson, the dance therapist who led the debut dance4empowerment program at Camp Ramah New England, led the dance portion of the pageant for the afternoon.  The girls had a wonderful time dancing together to their favorite songs! Unfortunately I could not watch the program run firsthand because I am at Emory University in Atlanta, GA but both Andrea and Sivan couldn’t wait to tell me that the dance program was a big success. My college schedule is very demanding but I am still motivated to continue expanding dance4empowerment’s reach.
d4e MAP 2
I am honored to have had the opportunity to help create such a fun and empowering program for the Miss Amazing Pageant participants. I want to thank Andrea for all her hard work helping to organize this great event and for running an amazing program. Thank you Sivan for sharing the same passion for dance as I do and for wanting to empower people with disabilities.  I look forward to sharing more exciting programs hosted by dance4empowerment.  If you know an organization or foundation that might be interested in partnering with dance4empowerment, please let us know!
d4e MAM 5
Dance, move, and empower,
Sierra

Important Social Media Milestones

This week, dance4empowerment reached two great achievements.  First, the @dance4empower Twitter account that shares inspiring content on the field of disabilities and inclusion throughout the world reached its first-year anniversary.  Since the creation of the Twitter account, over 230 people have followed us and many more have “favorited”, “retweeted”, and shared our content.  The next step is to create a Facebook account to share more content, pictures, and videos with everyone who follows us on Twitter and also those who don’t have Twitter accounts.
Our second milestone this week was getting our 3,oooth viewer on the dance4empowerment WordPress blog.  This is particularly exciting because the blog was the first form of social media I ever used to share the work I am doing, I am humbled by the number of people who have read and followed me throughout my journey.
One significant chapter of my journey that recently came to a close was high school and my senior project called Ma’avar.  Gann Academy offered me so many opportunities to further my passion for dance and the inclusion of people with disabilities.  I am thankful for the time I was given to perform an Independent Research and Design project on the genetics of Down’s syndrome and the week I spent learning from the pioneers of inclusion in Israel.  Although Ma’avar technically came to a close last week, I will continue my work into the summer and spend more time interning at the MA State House and for the Ruderman Family Foundation.
I am learning so much from both of my internships and having incredible experiences.  In my internship at the Ruderman Family Foundation, I am learning important lessons on social media and SEO ratings.  I am grateful to Jay Ruderman, President of the RFF, for the opportunity to intern for his family’s inspiring Foundation.  I have been interning for the RFF for over a year now and am honored to work with such a talented, thoughtful, and impressive group of people.
Additionally, I am glad to continue as an intern in Representative Kay Khan’s office in the MA State House.  Rep. Khan is the House Chair on the Joint Committee for Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities.  She shares my passion for dance and is a leader in making Massachusetts a more inclusive city for people with disabilities.  I was honored to have her join me at my graduation and look forward to working in her office throughout the summer. One of the many opportunities given to State House interns is a series of seminars hosted twice daily.  A variety of speakers come to share their experiences working in the State House, including House Representatives, Senators, and even the Governor.  Last week I attended a seminar by the Speaker of the House, Speaker DeLeo.  He shared his experiences with us and, most inspirational, was his response to a question about his greatest success during his career at the State House.  After some thought, he decided that the accomplishment he was most proud of was the impact that he had on a specific mother of two children with autism.  When he initially met this woman, they discussed legislation that would improve the lives of people with autism and other disabilities as they aged out of the school system.  This legislation was eventually passed and, when he ran into this woman again, she thanked him for all the work that he did to make the lives of her children better.  To Speaker DeLeo, seeing the impact he could have on this woman and her two children was extremely special to him and truly inspirational to me.  It taught me that, in the end, it doesn’t matter how many people follow the dance4empowerment Twitter account or read our blog, but how every step I take to further dance4empowerment can affect the students who will participate in the program.  I hope to take his words with me in everything I do and I feel fortunate to know that I have already made an impact on people along the way.
 
Dance, move, and empower,
Sierra

Inspiring Performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre

Last Thursday night my family and I went to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre for my mum’s birthday.  Although the evening was meant to celebrate my mum, the performance was so inspirational and appealed to me not just as a dancer, but in light of the work I do with dance4empowerment as well.

Alvin Ailey was an African American choreographer and an activist who founded the dance company in New York that bears his name. The goal of his dance company was to celebrate African-American culture through dance and movement. Drawing upon his childhood memories of oppression and segregation, Ailey popularized modern dance in the 20th century and, further, revolutionized African-American participation in dance performances.  Having recently visited the South on a Civil Rights journey, I was touched by Alvin Ailey’s story and impressed with his passion for dance. The legacy of Ailey’s commitment to dance and to his heritage was apparent in Thursday night’s performance. 

Ailey’s strong commitment to his “unique” community spoke to me the most as my non-profit, dance4empowerment, works towards the inclusion of people with disabilities.  My goal is to bring dance to as many people with disabilities in our communities as a means of self-expression and growth.  And, like Ailey, I hope that my program will continue to expand, improve, and influence over time.

Ma’avar Blog #1

The Hebrew word ma’avar means “transitions,” so it makes sense that the final months of senior year at Gann Academy concludes with a Ma’avar program. The program is designed to give students the opportunity to transition from the classroom to the community and explore their interests until graduation.  I feel very fortunate to have this time to return to two internships I participated in last summer and to devote quality time to dance4empowerment before leaving to college in the Fall.

This week I returned to the Massachusetts State House as an intern for Representative Kay Khan of Newton; Rep. Khan is the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.  When I interned in Rep. Khan’s office during the summer, I learned so much about government and politics so I am honored to return to her office and learn more. In addition, I consider Rep. Khan a mentor in my volunteer work for people with disabilities as she was one of the first people to help me develop my ideas and goals for dance4empowerment; being back in her office will give me the opportunity to share my progress with her more frequently.

Besides my internship at the State House, I will continue my internship with the Ruderman Family Foundation.  Rep. Khan is actually responsible for introducing me to Mr. Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, because of our shared interest in the inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish communities. Working with Mr. Ruderman and for his family’s Foundation has been inspirational and has greatly benefitted the development of dance4empowerment.

The final commitment of my Ma’avar project, is the much needed time to work on cementing the dance4empowerment program for next year.  I want to spend time building new relationships with foundations that are willing to host or support dance4empowerment programming, enhancing our marketing and publicity, and expanding the dance4empowerment program throughout the Boston area.

I am really excited for Ma’avar; I am embracing the opportunity the program gives me to continue to learn from local leaders and to focus on dance4empowerment. Please stay connected to my blog as I will be posting on my progress!

 

Dance, move, and empower,

Sierra

CJP Grant and Other News

Last week I spent several days on a Civil Rights Journey organized through my high school, Gann Academy. Each year students are provided an opportunity to spend Exploration week learning outside the classroom in local and other U.S. programs. Last year, I was fortunate to spend Exploration Week learning from pioneer foundations for people with disabilities in Israel, a program I developed and received approval for from Gann.  I expected my trip this year to be a completely different experience from my trip last year; however, I found myself thinking about very similar ideas.

As I traveled through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, I spent a lot of time thinking about segregation, integration, and my personal connection to the Civil Rights movement.  It was frightening to think that slavery, racism, and the terrible violence and hatred that came with it once had such a strong presence in this country and that it was not that long ago. And, although there is still a divide between black and white, thankfully the gap is getting smaller.  Life in the South is still quite different than in New England, however, major changes in thinking have been made in the last 50 years.

Throughout our trip we met influential leaders of the Civil Rights movement, like Freedom Rider Charles Person and Attorney Fred Gray; they were kind enough to share their experiences as African Americans in the deep South.  We also met with a variety of other people who were either involved with or impacted by the Civil Rights movement; their experiences were all very different but shared the same life lessons.  They told us that as teenagers in a rapidly changing world, we must do everything we can to change the injustices we see in the world and, further, to find our passions and fight for them. I feel very fortunate to have already found something I am passionate about – making our community more inclusive for people with disabilities.  During my journey through the South, I thought about the separation and inequality in today’s world for people with disabilities and I know that we must do better.

Another opportunity provided to students at Gann is during Senior year is Maavar, a three month time period in which we are given “free” time to work on a project or hold an internship aligned with our specific interests.  Therefore, starting this week, I will focus the majority of my time dedicated to enhancing the dance4empowerment program.  With the recent Combined Jewish Philanthropies Connection and Engagement Grant* I received, I will continue to create more dance programs and push for more inclusion in our communities. In addition, I will be interning at the State House for Representative Kay Khan learning invaluable lessons in the world of politics.

Please stay connected as I share my progress!

Dance, move, and empower,

Sierra

 

*One-time Grants of up to $5,000 for innovative initiatives (programs, events and experiences) that support a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community and access to Jewish life.  Initiatives are targeted to under-connected or under-engaged populations such as families with young children, interfaith couples and families, and any other cohorts who have not found a way to connect or engage within our community