Before Alanna came to Gateways, she had always known on some level that she wanted to work with kids. However, it was the three formative years she spent volunteering with Gateways’ Jewish Education Program that ignited Alanna’s passion for disability inclusion and led her on the path to a career in elementary and special education.
Like many other teen volunteers, Alanna found Gateways through Prozdor, the local supplementary Jewish high school. When it came time to pick out her classes one fall, she and some friends signed up for a class called “Intro to Gateways.” They weren’t exactly sure what it was, but the prospect of learning more about disability education was interesting, and they thought they’d give it a try. One Sunday, Prozdor bussed the class over to see the Gateways Jewish Education Program in action, and Alanna and her friends knew they had picked the right class. They applied the next week to join the Teen Volunteer Program.
Every Sunday morning for the following three years, Alanna woke up early to come volunteer in the Gateways Sunday Program. Even years later, Alanna’s face still lights up when she talks about the two students she worked with and the bonds that she formed with them. Her first student, with whom she worked for two years, was preparing for her Bat Mitzvah with Gateways, and Alanna played a critical role in that preparation. Alanna declares that the day that she finally got to attend her student’s Bat Mitzvah was the best day of her senior year of High School. This student was anxious when they began working together and had rarely shown interest in speaking up in class, Alanna explains. For this student, standing confidently on the bimah, leading services, chanting Torah and Haftarah, and delivering her D’var Torah was a remarkable achievement. Alanna remembers sitting in the front row at the synagogue, shedding tears of pride and happiness. “She was so perfect and so confident…there was not a dry eye in that room,” Alanna recalls.
Alanna’s experience with her second Gateways student, though different, was every bit as special. This student needed more hands-on support, as he was often nonverbal, and struggled to regulate his emotions. Alanna speaks warmly of the connection that she shared with him, reflecting that “The fact that he had a lot of hard days made the good ones more exciting.” One memory – of one of those good days – particularly stands out in Alanna’s mind. The previous weeks had been especially challenging, and the student had been frequently hitting himself. That day though, he came into Gateways smiling, exclaiming out loud that he was excited to be there. Alanna and the other volunteers channeled this positive energy, and the student had a wonderful day, participating eagerly in Hebrew, and singing and dancing along during music. Alanna comments on the supportive classroom environment that celebrated these small wins, saying, “even though it all sounds like such little things, there was such a growth from how it was the weeks before that everyone in the class was excited.” These little moments added up, and Alanna’s student progressed over the course of the year, from struggling to recognize Hebrew letters to reading entire words and sentences.
During one of her years volunteering, Alanna had to make a difficult choice between Gateways and another passion of hers: theater. When Alanna learned that her rehearsals would conflict with the Sunday Program, she knew that pulling out from theater might prevent her from participating in future productions. Still, Alanna says, when it came down to comparing the show to “three years of genuinely impactful work,” she knew what her choice would be. “The show will be over and then the show’s over,” she muses, “but then there’s also Gateways, which happens every week…and I had seen the impact that Gateways could make on these kids, and so ultimately I was like, that’s more important.”
Now, because of this choice, Alanna is on the path to becoming an education professional, earning a dual degree in elementary and special education. She is student teaching full time and will be spending an additional semester teaching in a special education setting. Even with these commitments, Alanna finds time to tutor an autistic student in reading twice a week. Alanna asserts that it was Gateways that led her here, both by illuminating her path to a special education degree and by giving her foundational skills that have made her feel equipped to do this work. In fact, things she learned in teen volunteer training with Gateways’ behavioral specialist, Mia Hyman, often come up in Alanna’s college classes and her work as a student teacher. Alanna texts Mia all the time, she says, whenever a concept or tool she learned from Mia is the subject of an essay or class discussion.
One of Mia’s tools that Alanna uses frequently is a token system. Her current tutoring student responds particularly well to it, Alanna says, and they have a special token board, decorated with photos of the student’s dogs, that the student can use to earn rewards. “This whole motivation and reinforcement system was completely everything I learned at Gateways,” Alanna adds. These techniques support Alanna’s work with students who do not have disabilities, too. “A lot of the strategies I learned at Gateways, yes they worked wonders for these kids, but they’re just good life skills and people skills to have…it’s such real-life knowledge that they would teach you.”
When asked if Gateways shaped her perspective more broadly about inclusion and its role in education, Alanna nods an enthusiastic yes. She thinks back to a discussion in one of her college classes, in which several classmates expressed the view that students with diverse learning needs should always be fully separated from their peers without disabilities. “I remember I got angry,” she says “and I went on this spiel about inclusion, and I had never realized how strong my feelings were that every child should have the chance to be included…and that they should have assistance and adaptations made.”
Above all, what has stuck with Alanna is the capability and resilience of her Gateways students. Though they struggled with learning challenges, these students came to Gateways each Sunday to work with such determination to achieve things — like becoming a Bat Mitzvah or learning to read Hebrew — that others thought impossible. Their accomplishments have inspired Alanna to help other students like them to reach their full potential, too. “It’s given me such a work ethic now,” Alanna reflects. “Look at these kids. Look what they’re capable of.”