Empowering Friendship

Empowering Friendship

by Josh Bender, Chief Executive Officer, Bender JCC | January 2024

When we think about inclusion at the Bender JCC what often comes to mind is our amazing Lessans Camp JCC, the Bender Early Childhood Center (ECC), our beautiful outdoor and indoor pools — both heated and open year-round — and dozens of specialized programs serving many individuals and families, each of them coming to us from unique backgrounds and with distinct needs.

I love to walk around the building every day because I can’t help but notice the depth and breadth of experiences taking place in our programmatic spaces all at the same time. In talking with members and staff, I am routinely amazed at how the most fundamental human needs of belonging and connection inspire their participation. Our wonderful programmatic experiences set the stage for Bender JCC’s most important work: building relationships and creating friendships. As members and staff, we all recognize the importance of a place where friends, colleagues, neighbors, classmates – anyone – can discover that someone cares for us.

These authentic relationships make our community unique. The Bender JCC aspires to be a community where members help one another become who they want to be, and invest in each other’s success, by sharing information, skills, and very often, attentive friendship.

As part of our three-year strategic plan to expand inclusive programming year-round at the Bender JCC, we recently created a neurodiversity affirming social skills group for teenagers with disabilities called “Empowering Friendship.” The teens socialized together while learning important skills such asself-advocacy, consent and boundaries, self-determination, and more. The class filled to capacity as soon as registration opened, reminding us that everyone, regardless of their ability, desires and deserves friendship. I overheard one of the teenage participants
proudly tell their parents: “I made a new friend.”

The Bender JCC encourages inclusion through friendship. A member’s son recently signed up for our teen membership to work out in our Weinberg Health and Fitness Center. This
young man could have gone to one of the many fitness centers and health clubs in our area, but he specifically chose the Bender JCC because he looks forward to seeing our security guard, Ali, who welcomes and embraces him every time he walks through our front doors. Recognizing that we all share the universal need for human connection is an important step towards becoming a more inclusive community. Each of us, through our behaviors, actions, and words, shapes the environment that creates belonging and friendship.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Bender JCC’s Winter 2024 Program Guide