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CU Chabad links students with special needs kids

Linking Hearts volunteer Sarah Siegel, 21, enjoys a laugh with Olivia Zeid, 8.INSIDE the Zeids’ home a “vanilla cake” has just been pulled from the oven and a giraffe and baby doll are being served a thick helping. There’s excitement over “presents” and a raucous piggy-back ride.

It’s Sunday, and Lera Yavich, 21, is pretend playing with Olivia Zeid, 8, and her younger sister Chloe, 5.

The visit is part of a weekly ritual when Yavich and her friend, Sarah Siegel, 21, come to play with Olivia. Usually they walk dogs at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, but sometimes they visit her at her Gunbarrel home.

The two CU-Boulder students have been meeting regularly with Olivia for four years.


Olivia, who was adopted from China, has been diagnosed with sensory integration disorder and ADHD.


“When we first started coming, she was all over the place,” Yavich said. “She couldn’t sit still. Now she has better focus and gets more excited when we come.”

Yavich and Siegel volunteer with Linking Hearts, a Chabad at CU program which connects CU students with local Jewish families who have at least one child with special needs.

Today 10 Boulder County families receive help from 14 Linking Hearts volunteers, usually for an hour or more a week.

LINKING Hearts founder, Leah Wilhelm, is familiar with the struggles of special needs parents; she and her husband, Rabbi Yisroel Wilhelm, have a son Yitzy, age 8, who is diagnosed with autism.

They also have three typical children ages 21 months, 7 and 5.

Leah Wilhelm first volunteered with Chabad of Michigan’s Friendship Circle, tutoring children with learning disabilities while she was in high school, but it was her experience as a mother that motivated her to start the Linking Hearts program in 2006.

“I’m not sure that I would have done it otherwise,” Wilhelm said.

“We have a lot going on at Chabad. I made this a priority because I see first hand as a mother of a child with special needs how important this is.

Families trust me, and we can relate because we are all on the same page.”

Many Chabad campus institutions offer volunteer programs similar to Linking Hearts, including at University of Chicago, Stanford University, Emory University and Texas A&M University, said Rabbi Motti Seligson of

More commonly Chabad offers Friendship Circles that link high school volunteers with children with special needs, Wilhelm said.

Chabad’s Friendship Circles offer centers for teaching life skills and a Sunday school, but the biggest component is a “Friends at Home” program, which, she says, was her inspiration for Linking Hearts.

Many Linking Heart volunteers have some previous experience, such as volunteering as a peer buddy in high school or working as a summer camp counselor, but for some it’s their first time.

“I am always so impressed how devoted the volunteers are,” Wilhelm said.

“They really feel it adds a deeper dimension to their lives.”

Wilhelm says play dates aren’t easy to arrange for her son, Yitzy, and that it means a lot to him to have a “special friend.”

But she also recognizes that volunteers are important not only to the children but the parents.

“Parents of children with special needs do not have a moment to breathe,” Wilhelm said.

“You are on duty and on guard at every moment of the day. To have somebody come in a few minutes to let go . . . how valuable is that?”

A Break for Parents

WHEN Olivia was adopted at 11 months old, she couldn’t pick up a Cheerio or sit up or crawl, said her mother, Karen Zeid.

As Olivia became older she continued to have trouble with balance, constantly falling and bruising and never seeming to notice the pain.

For a while Karen Zeid and her husband, Nigel, attributed her developmental problems to being raised in an orphanage for nearly one year, and not getting regular human touch or exercise during that time.

“But as she has become older, the gap has become more noticeable,” Karen Zeid said.

That includes not being able to express herself when she is angry, instead hitting or repeating what she wants.

Olivia often will parallel play next to children instead of playing with them or she plays alone. She does, however, read at grade level. Over time she has learned to speak more clearly and to refer to past events.

For Karen and Nigel, Olivia’s volunteers have been a godsend. They give Karen time to make dinner. They also provide a special time for Olivia.

“It truly is Olivia’s hour,” Karen Zeid said.

But it’s also been a gift for Yavich, who majors in psychology and now is convinced she wants to study speech therapy.

“It’s been really interesting to watch my patience grow,” Yavich said, adding that she has learned how to handle temper tantrums and other difficult situations.

“Sarah and Lera do the fun piece,” Karen Zeid said.

“With Sarah and Lera, Olivia is the leader. She gets to choose what she wants to do.”

Information about Linking Hearts: Leah Wilhelm, at or (303) 444-2775.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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