created at: 2011-03-22

It was that rare commodity: a stress-free Purim carnival. Gateways’ Purim carnival attracted more than 50 families from its Jewish Education Programs, as well as several preschoolers with special needs and a few families checking out if Gateways might be the right fit for their child.

Organizers planned the event to offer enough activity to create a happy buzz, but without the crowds, long lines and most importantly, chaos.

The activities were designed to provide both challenge and success for children with a variety of special needs. Visual supports and a color-coded map of activities helped them select the games and learn the rules ahead of time. The activities were also spread out into different rooms for gross motor and sensory activities, and a quiet room for children needing a break. There were also plenty of sure-fire crowd-pleasers including cotton candy, popcorn and – naturally — hamentashen.

For Anna, the highlight of her first-ever Gateways Purim carnival was the Moon Bounce where, unlike many other carnivals, there was no line, no time limit — and no pushing. “It’s even better than the popcorn, and she loves popcorn,” said her mother Vivian Glassman-Grosser.

As Jamie enjoyed the carnival from her wheelchair, stopping to try her hand at adaptive bowling, big brother Tom was impressed. “You can see by the way the aides are interacting with all of them that the kids really feel comfortable here.”

The second session carnival ended with a grand finale, a magic show by Gateways Sunday program alumnus Noah Bittner. It was a jubilant performance where objects disappeared and reappeared, ropes stiffened and went limp, balls changed color and shape, all before the amazed eyes of the children.

Noah also made magic happen with his fellow students, many of whom he invited up as volunteer magical assistants.

This connection between the students and the community they and their families have built over the years is part of the larger Gateways magic. “This is a place where it’s guaranteed my daughter will be truly successful and feel like a leader,” said Rachel Katz who brought her daughter, Genevieve, and little sister Sydra. “It’s something that doesn’t always happen in other venues.”

The carnival’s lead staff, Gateways Jewish Education Programs Coordinator Nancy Mager has a theory about why the students had such a wonderful time. “First of all, they were prepared,” she says – the week before they’d worked with a social story all about Purim carnivals.

“We also wanted them to start their day like they always do – in the classroom, only this time planning their carnival experience,” Mager adds. “And the teen volunteers understood the goals of the day included each child feeling feel like a winner. They were able to adapt a game – often on the fly — as needed, cheering on the children, whether they won or not.”

As an educator, Mager’s favorite games included “Ahasuerus’ Moat,” featuring a floating fleet of pirate-garbed plastic ducks, and “Dig for Mishloach Manot” where carnival-goers sift through sand for plastic gems which, when added to a crown, made them a winner.

As Gateways music therapist Miriam Greenbaum played the children’s regular Good-bye Song on her guitar as the carnival’s first session drew to a close, many of them sang along, and several jumped up to dance.

“These are all kids who are on the fringe in many ways, but at this moment,” said Rachel’s dad Frank Murphy, “they are all in sync. Gateways really is Rachel’s way of being part of the community.”