Last Sunday was unseasonably cool and cloudy for early September. But the chill in no way detracted from the warmth of the day for the 67 kids, moms, dads and even a few grandparents gathered at Belkin Family Lookout Farm in South Natick as personal guests of owners Joan and Steve Belkin.
It was a kick-off event for Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, which provides Jewish educational opportunities to children with special needs across Greater Boston. And youngsters wearing windbreakers over their purple Gateways T-shirts could be found reaching high into trees for apples and pears destined for pies and cobblers.
While picking fruit, kids and parents greeted each other and caught up on how they’d spent their summers. But it was when the farm shuttle dropped them at the children’s play area that the fun began in earnest. Featuring a petting zoo, a burlap maze and rope climb, the area also offers rides on real-live ponies — and one remarkably patient camel.
Indeed, there was so much to do that mom Debbie Berechman described the event as “a wonderful opportunity to more than fill Eitan’s sensory needs.”
And sometimes even to push themselves beyond their own limits. With her dad David close by her side, Diya Holladay made her way slowly up to the top of the rope climb despite her significant visual impairment. “Diya definitely knows this is part of the Gateways program,” her father said afterwards. “And she’s having a great time.”
Indeed, Dena Rashes, Co-chair of Sweet Sounds, Gateways’ Nov. 21 annual event, saw her family’s morning at the farm as “providing a unique opportunity to be together in an activity where everyone can participate equally and find their own success.”
It was also a sweet and social way to transition from summer to fall, said Amy Cory, on hand with husband Ethan and sons Jesse and Jacob. “We love seeing everyone having fun before easing back into the school year.”
Getting the chance “to chat with Gateways families outside the classroom” topped Marni Levitt’s list of benefits. Whereas for son Ari it was the chance to watch the baby goats and ride on the camel which, he pointed out, “is actually a dromedary.”
And the fact that the families enjoyed harvesting apples together was a tangible reminder of where we are in the Jewish year, says Nancy Mager, Gateways Jewish Education Program Coordinator. “It brings home the celebrations of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot in ways they can experience, enjoy and remember for years to come.”
For one Gateways family, the reunion had an even greater poignancy. Rachel Murphy had missed the second half of last school year, having spent months in the hospital. Now that she’s out and ready to return to her Sunday Gateways class, the whole family is celebrating.
“We’re all excited about the new year,” said her mom Elisa. “This is a wonderful re-introduction to all her friends and one of the best weekends we’ve had as a family. “What a gift you are to us!”
To find out how you can get involved, and learn more about Gateways programs, call 617-630-9010 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.