By Rochelle Maruch Miller

Stacy Mayer is on a mission. Passionate about her cause, the personable mother of five, an attorney, and active member of our community is dedicating her efforts to eradicate bullying and promote inclusion and kindness among children.

“It started with a phone call I received from a friend whose child was being bullied on the school bus going to and from public school. Knowing that bullying is one of my biggest pet peeves, she asked me if I could give her any advice in dealing with the situation. Her child was suffering and despite her efforts, the situation was deteriorating. Moreover, the child had few friends and felt alone.”

Spurred to action, Stacy performed her due diligence, researching effective methods of inculcating youngsters with sensitivity and compassion for others. One of the most exemplary that she found was the Buddy Bench, a designated seated area where students who are feeling lonely can sit and seek camaraderie. Customarily painted in bright, inviting colors, the concept is the brainchild of Christian Bucks, a second-grader from Pennsylvania, who knew that some of his classmates were lonely during recess and decided to do something about it. His simple, utterly heartwarming solution was to install a “buddy bench.” The youngster pitched the idea to his high-school principal who immediately got on board, letting him pick the bench’s style and color.

“A buddy bench is more than just a playground decoration. Designating such a bench is a helpful way for schools to facilitate peer support among students,” wrote Professor Helen Cowie for a chapter in “Promoting Education,” a collection of essays designed to encourage unique approaches to teaching. In her essay, Cowie cites peer support groups as a critical factor in combating school bullying.

Champions of student inclusion, HAFTR embraced the concept of Buddy Benches enthusiastically, integrating it with their HAFTR Miles Reward initiative. “Whoever sits on the bench earns half a mile, as will inviting someone to come off the bench and join them,” Stacy explained.

Since its inception, the initiative has elicited an enthusiastic response. “It is lovely to see the students demonstrate such care for each other; so many friendships develop during recess and lunchtime,” said a faculty member. “I am seeing more of a concerted effort by the students to include their classmates in activities and social settings.”

Stacy is on a constant quest to find innovative new ways of promoting inclusion and kindness. While attending an event in Great Neck, she was inspired by the Shalva Band—an extraordinary group of young performers unlike any she had ever seen before.

“It was an incredible performance that shatters all stereotypes,” Stacy told the 5TJT. The performers are special-needs children who spread their message of inclusiveness all over the world, and show that no matter the obstacle, they can accomplish anything.”

That performance was all it took for Stacy to decide on her next initiative. “I knew I had to bring this experience to HAFTR. The school has been amazing since I first approached them with the concept of having Shalva Band perform for our students. They have been enthusiastic in their support from the outset, hiring extra security for the event.”

Every child will shine on March 14 as students of HAFTR Lower School attend a performance of the Shalva Band at the lower-school gymnasium. Already generating buzz, this exciting evening will feature a children’s activity at 5:30, followed by the concert at 6:15.

‘There will be no homework that night to help the children and their parents fully experience this free concert,” Stacy explained. “The children will see that a disability need not impede someone from achieving their goals.”

Acclaimed the world over, the Shalva Band is an interactive educational experience that incorporates both English and Hebrew, while integrating music, vocal performances, multimedia, and storytelling. The engaging performances are upbeat and fun, all the while exposing students to life lessons beyond the classroom, and the personal stories of the musicians—their backgrounds, aliyah stories, struggles, and successes. Audiences young and old will find a newfound discovery of disability, persistence, human dignity, and community.

Comprising eight talented musicians with disabilities, the Shalva Band performs to the highest musical standards by invitation at cultural venues and dignitary events throughout the year. Inspiring crowds with its musical repertoire and charm, the band is one of Shalva’s most celebrated inclusion programs.

With its growing popularity in Israel, the Shalva Band regularly performs with celebrity artists and at the fore of public music forums. In addition to being an inspiring and delightful musical experience, the band’s performances shatter attitudinal barriers, causing their mesmerized audiences to believe in human potential and dignity.

The music will lead you on a journey to learn about musical culture as a language that unites people of all countries and abilities; to discover your own creativity, potential, and contribution to making the world a better place; to experience inclusion of people with disabilities in a positive and inspiring way; to think differently about challenges, achievement, bravery, and acceptance; to connect with Israel and be proud of the values it represents and the opportunities it affords to less advantaged members of society; to open your eyes to a new world where the sky is the limit and people are, first and foremost, people, united by our humanity; and to appreciate what is made possible through motivation, hard work, and the human spirit.

The band was founded 12 years ago by Shai Ben Shushan, a drummer who had sustained a head injury in Special Forces combat. For months he had to live with his mouth surgically shut, after which he relearned to speak and eat.

Experiencing disability led him to volunteer with Shalva, an Israeli organization that provides a range of services to pupils with disabilities, including therapy, arts programs, job training, and advocacy work. At that time, its director had noticed several students with outstanding musical talent and tapped Ben Shoshan to form a band.

Ranging from their late teens to mid-20s, some Shalva Band members have been practicing together since they were six. They say they love making music—but also perform because they can.

“This concert will be so wonderful,” said HAFTR Principal Joy Hammer. “I think our kids will learn as much about following dreams, persistence, and seeing that a disability does not need to hold someone back from pursuing their goals.”

“A more inclusive childhood translates into more inclusive adults,” says Stacy. “Everyone can overcome challenges. I always try to improve inclusion with my kids. My goal is to teach my children to always work with one another. Be kind to each other and, if given the opportunity, help someone less fortunate. In this day and age, no child should ever be left out, bullied, or alone. HAFTR has embraced the concept of inclusion with the Buddy Benches and Lunch Buddy program—and this is only the beginning.”

For information regarding sponsorship opportunities, please e-mail HAFTRshalvaConcert@gmail.com.

Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative media consultant, lecturer, and educator, and writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. She welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com.

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