We wanted to take some time to really share the difference that Jewish Family & Career Services, and especially the PAL program, has meant to our family and the ways in which it has contributed so deeply to our lives.
We are a two-parent family with two boys who are currently 11 and 14 years of age. My husband and I married later in life, and when we came together, we both were fully employed with good careers and entered the marriage without debt. We were members of a synagogue, and our boys participated in the JCC preschool and summer camp programs. We thought we were creating a happy and healthy Jewish family and were living a traditional Jewish family life in suburban Dunwoody.
As our kids got older however, our older son was diagnosed with ADHD at age 8, and later with Asperger’s syndrome at age 13. Our younger son was also diagnosed with ADHD and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Initially, given how high functioning the boys are, it was not obvious to us or anyone else. So, for about seven years, we spent many of our resources with various psychologists, counselors and physical, occupational and speech therapists just trying to “figure out” what the holes were and how to fill them.
The journey exhausted much of our emotional and mental reserves and was financially draining as well. By the time we started counseling at JF&CS, we were already in significant debt, and my husband and I were both emotionally and mentally exhausted. We were both still working, and it was difficult to meet the kids’ needs, and keep our jobs and marriage stable.
After years of sending one of our children to a Jewish day school that tried, but ended up not meeting his needs, and then a public charter school that also was not a good fit, we decided to send both of them to a specialized program designed for their disabilities. The total cost of both of our sons’ education is more than my annual salary, and we live off my husband’s income, and are still paying off all our accumulated debt. We refinanced the house and cut our expenses. We could no longer do many things we used to take for granted as a middle class family, like eating out, going to movies, or going on an outing as a family. We just don’t have any “extra” money to spend.
Even socially, we lost many of the friends we had early on because our kids, and therefore our families, were on a different path, and those paths diverged. Most people would look at our lives and they would see all the materialistic things we do have, but looks can be deceiving and no one ever really knows what’s behind a person’s closed door.
For us, being a part of the PAL program gave us some of our life back, the life that we envisioned having when we decided to create a family. We get the opportunity to socialize with other families going through similar challenges.
Our younger son gets to experience that even more often because he gets that relief and fun whenever he spends time alone with his Big PAL. They have a great bond and given all the challenges our family faces, it’s such a blessing to know that the pals can have that time together, and our son gets some breathing room with someone else that he trusts and loves. We have no local family and a small extended family who are not actively involved in our daily lives. So, this bond between Big and Little PAL is a cherished one.
It’s so easy for my husband and me to lose sight of how great our boys really are because we are so busy “doing” for them day in and day out. The PAL program gives us the opportunity to see them through a different window. We laugh together, create a positive memory together, and for those couple of hours, all the stresses of our lives are left behind, and we get to celebrate and enjoy each other.
One interesting fact we should also share as a PAL participant family is that had we not been getting counseling at JF&CS and had our counselor not shared that she thought our son would be eligible, we never would have inquired. We did see all the ads and flyers about the PAL program and had heard of it, but we assumed that it was a program for families going through difficult times such a divorce, serious illness or death. It was for families with “real need” and life changing events in their lives. We had to be told that our situation counted, that PALs can also be matched to a sibling if one child has a disability. I’m so grateful for that.
We can’t be more thankful for the impact the PAL program has on a group of people who, on the outside, may easily look like they have it all. In truth, none of us really have it all, and all of us need each other to get through the journey. The PAL program and all the people who make it possible are really giving us a priceless gift, and it’s one that will be remembered and cherished for a lifetime.
The parent who authored this submission asked to remain anonymous.
The PAL Program’s annual fundraiser, Havinagala, will be Saturday, Jan. 25 at Sweetwater Brewing Co. For more information about the PAL Program or Havinagala, visit www.jfcsatl.org.