Here to Help

Trying desperately to reach the final hold, Logan, age 11, pushed up with all his strength and extended his tired arm. He brushed his fingers on the ceiling, adding his fingerprints to the dark circle of smudges at the top of the rope. “I’m so happy,” he grinned, as he rappelled a little shakily down the rock wall. After a long, ten minute climb, his arms and legs were tired and his hands were sore, but he had made it to the top. Fatigued and back on solid ground, one of the volunteers helped him to untie the knot attached to his harness.

Getting to the top of the wall is an achievement for anyone, as it requires strength and perseverance. However, this achievement was particularly exceptional for Logan because he has a neuromuscular condition that makes it challenging to strengthen his awkward muscles. It has taken him a long time to build up his strength and complete such a difficult climb. Moments like these require support and encouragement, and Bina Farm, an organization that provides learning opportunities to children with a variety of disabilities – such as autism, Down syndrome, brain injuries, and multiple sclerosis – counts on its volunteers to provide some of that support.

Dana Hall is the well-equipped host of two of Bina Farm’s activities: rock climbing and horse riding. The goal of these programs is to help children with disabilities to strengthen themselves both physically and socially. At Dana Hall, Mr. McGovern, an experienced rock climber and climbing instructor, leads classes every Saturday between 10am and 1pm for Bina Farm children between the ages of nine and fifteen. These activities provide the children with the opportunity to work on improving their condition, which ranges from strengthening their muscles to working on their coordination to communicating with the volunteers. Rock climbing and horse riding, in particular, provide great opportunities for improvement. “Balance takes a lot of effort, and we do a lot [of work] based on working across the midline,” Mr. McGovern explained. It can be difficult for people with cognitive disorders to work across the line down the middle of the body because different parts of the brain control the different sides of the body. Rock climbing is great for the mind and body because it forces the children to practice stepping and reaching for handholds across this midline. Horseback riding also requires the children to practice their steering over the midline, as well as balance. Student volunteers from the Dana Hall community, many of whom work directly with the children every week, make these programs possible.

High school students are told regularly about the importance of community service. At Dana every sophomore is required to do 20 hours of community service by the end of the year. Even though it’s mandatory, Rose Maalouf ‘14 likes that the requirement is there because “it introduced me to new experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.” At Bina, she adds, “we’re making an impact on someone else’s life.” Although this requirement can often feel like an extra commitment to add into students’ already busy schedule, there are many benefits to contributing even a small amount of time to helping others. “It’s hard on top of everything else I have to do,” said Maalouf, but it’s worth it, she says, because of the strong relationships that are made between the children and volunteers.

“I love volunteering because it brings me joy to help people,” said Julianna Miller ‘13, a volunteer at the Bina Farm riding program, “The real benefit for me is just knowing that I have made someone’s life a little bit better.”

By volunteering at Bina Farm, Mr. McGovern believes that there is another important benefit: “we all become slightly more normal.” Each of us believe that the way we live and think is the “normal” way of living and behaving, Mr. McGovern explains, including the children who participate in the program. By spending time with these children at Bina Farm, the volunteers gain the opportunity to experience the children’s ideas of normality. Not all of the children have a visible disability, but those who do tend to get treated differently by the outside world. “We’re the ones that make them not normal,” Mr. McGovern pointed out, “It’s ignorance that makes people see others as different.” In other words, it’s not only the children that benefit from this experience. Everyone there has the opportunity to learn from one another by experiencing one another’s ideas of what “normal” means.

“The experience has changed my perspective of kids with disabilities,” Maalouf said, “I don’t generalize anymore because I got to know them.” The volunteers’ transformation may not be physical, like the children they work with, it can be much deeper: they can learn to see the world around them from a different perspective.

According to research constructed by the University of Nevada, which strives to “use knowledge to strengthen the social… well-being of people,” teenagers who participate in volunteering programs develop important qualities such as respect for others, patience, and leadership skills. They are also more likely to do well in school and vote once they become 18. Although not all the benefits may be clear at first, community service can leave a lasting impression on students and shape who they become.

At the Bina Farm rock climbing program, the beginning of the climb is always the hardest. The children need the confidence to know that they can accomplish more than they think. Reaching the top of the wall takes time, patience, and a lot of effort; however, the volunteers are there for both physical and moral support. Community service is required at Dana Hall because of the unexpected benefits it provides. The students’ help strongly reflects Dana Hall’s values as they’re described by our motto: Amor Caritas, or Love and Caring. Community service is just another way that students fulfill this mission, showing their love and desire to help others in the community. 

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