From Acceptance To Belonging
The profound impact of connection and feeling of belonging is something one never forgets. At the shy age of eighteen, I interviewed for a role as an Early Childhood teacher at Mayer Kaplan JCC. During my interview, a little boy smiled and played a short game of hide and seek just before he walked up, clasped his little hand in mine and pulled me in to the classroom to play. This experience surprised me, as I was cautious of how children might respond to me, not because of my personality or how I presented myself, but simply because of how I looked. Now thirteen years later, I’m still here at JCC Chicago and that story of my first interaction with a child in my classroom is one of many more!
This past year I proudly took on the new role of Inclusion Coordinator. Everything I have been working toward from within the four walls of my classroom, to my own personal advocacy and commitment to spreading the value of kindness and inclusion has led up to this. I am eager to share JCC Chicago’s newest initiative. Each month we will highlight a topic to help broaden our inclusive mindset and better represent everyone within the JCC Chicago community. Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us.
This month we’re highlighting Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness Month through my personal experience. Craniofacial differences can result from abnormalities in the growth patterns of the face or skull, which involves soft tissue and bones. Cleft lip and cleft palate are openings where the lip and roof of the mouth should be joined together but instead don’t form completely in the womb. Having been born with Craniofacial differences, children often stared at me, made comments or even laughed at me. Often times the adults in those situations either were embarrassed or did not know how to respond and did nothing. Just as a feeling of belonging lingers, the feeling of “othering” stings for a lifetime. When I was accepted by the children in my classroom year after year, I knew this was an incredibly special place to work. Last year, a student said to me, unprompted, with the kindest eyes and the most angelic voice, “My Reenie, I love your face.” One day I hope she realizes what those words mean to me.
This is why I love JCC Chicago, it is where I feel welcomed, valued by my peers, and accepted for my unique differences. We have had important discussions about language and mindset, we have taken actionable steps to improve accessibility by adding a clear accessibility widget to our website. We have also invested into making our campuses more accessible with improvements to cabins and program areas at Camp Chi, building a fully accessible Health Center at Camp Chi and community playground at the Bernard Horwich JCC, and ensuring that everyone can participate. We are also focused on having conversations and listening to our community members’ experiences so we can continue to evolve.
The J believes in cultivating a culture of belonging and I am excited to be a part of helping our community share in this experience. Whoever you are, however, you find yourself here, you are welcomed and accepted. Know you belong here.
Learn more about cleft and craniofacial awareness and find resources on how to talk about it here.