Newton teen’s nonprofit helps others reap benefits of dance, movement

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The Jewish Advocate – Dec 9, 2013
By Susie Davidson

Sierra Weiss has been dancing since she was 5 years old. “I love the strength it gives me,” she told The Advocate. And when she got a chance to work with those less abled, she decided to get them dancing, as well.

It was in 2010, during her second-to-last year as a camper at Camp Ramah New England that Weiss, a senior at Gann Academy in Waltham, elected to practice sports and play games with campers in Ramah’s Tikvah program for Jewish children with disabilities.

In a prepared statement, she described how her campmates influenced her: “I found them to be very inspiring, and very humbling. And I really wanted to give back to the Tikvah campers at Ramah for sharing so much with me.”

It was the summer before her freshman year of high school.

“The elective I took gave me the chance to spend an hour every day with the Tikvah campers, and I continued to spend time with them up to my final summer at camp, when I was a counselor in training for them,” she wrote. “They taught me to appreciate every moment and to work hard to achieve my goals.” In her sophomore year, Weiss became a volunteer at Newton based Gateways, a Sunday program for Jewish students with disabilities. She taught them about their Jewish identities and learned Hebrew with them.

Junior year found Weiss conducting an Independent Research and Design (IRaD) project at Gann to explore the scientific foundations of disabilities. She chose to focus on the study of the genetics of Down syndrome, which is a strictly genetic mutation. During that year, she worked with a Gann teacher, performing lab work, reading articles, and researching Down. For the “Explorations Week” component of IRaD, she went to Israel for a program that she created for herself.

“Many students travel and do social action projects or travel together in the U.S., but I decided it would be beneficial to observe Israel’s cutting-edge work with the disabled,” she wrote. “I chose to visit three pioneer programs that assist people with disabilities and their families,” she continued in an email to The Advocate. Those three programs were Shalva, Beit Issie, and ALEH – which, according to its website, is Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, and provides medical and rehabilitative care to 650 children in its four residential facilities.

“I identified ALEH as a leader in care for the disabled, and contacted its Marketing and Development Director, Dov Hirth, who invited me to come and observe a typical day at ALEH Jerusalem,” she said. “I especially wanted to observe the different therapies they use, like light, sound, and virtual stimulation.”

There, the 16-year-old observed even the most disabled people engaging in everyday activities and learning life skills, and watched children of all ages cleaning dishes, vacuuming, and performing other Pesach preparation duties. “I was inspired by what ALEH is doing for their patients, families, and also the integration of the community,” she said.

Fast-forward to 2013, and Weiss is founder and President of dance4empowerment, her own nonprofit organization, which creates dance programs for the disabled and funds local, inclusive arts programming. Its first donation was used to purchase supplies for the movement program at Gateways, which Weiss hopes to soon double in size with a second classroom for 10 additional students. The group also has its first volunteer, an avid dancer who is joining in for her bat mitzvah project.

All of this is unsurprising for those who know the teen, who is the Spanish Club leader, Heifers for Israel Club leader, an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) volunteer and a softball team captain at Gann. She is also filling out college applications, continues to volunteer weekly at Gateways, and dances seven hours a week at her longtime dance studio, the Joanne Langione Dance Center in Newton.

And it hits home, too. Her younger sister, Zoe, a Gann freshman, volunteered with the Tikvah campers for the first time this summer. “We get along really well, and she has been extremely supportive of my work with people with disabilities,” she told The Advocate, while noting that her parents, Debra and Brad, are her biggest supporters. “My mom traveled with me to Israel and got the chance to learn hands-on about people with disabilities and different methods of therapy for the first time,” she said.

Weiss’ blog is filled with posts about her involvements in Tikvah, Gateways and the annual Yom Sport day for the disabled, as well as Boston University’s City Lab summer lab program, Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ (CJP) Haifa-Boston Connections in Haifa, the Jews for Entrepreneurship Network, and an internship for state Rep. Kay Khan of Newton.

“Rep. Khan, a registered psychiatric nurse clinical specialist, is co-chair of the Legislative Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. She has worked to make Newton commuter rail stations accessible to all. She thinks that Jewish organizations in the Boston area, like CJP, have a huge and successful influence on the positive change that Boston has seen in creating a more accessible and equal society,” Weiss wrote.

In a Sept. 30 post, Weiss described the first year-round, dance4empowerment movement program at Gateways. “With dance moves inspired by some of the fall’s Jewish holidays, students picked a move to match their name for everyone to repeat and dance along to,” she wrote. “It was so great to see how focused the students were when they danced or repeated movements.”

“Sierra is a shining star and we at ALEH feel very fortunate to know her and her organization,” wrote Hirth in a guest blog on the site. “How many times have we heard that a child has been born without the ability to walk, or with a physical defect, and he or she is written off, even before receiving a name?” he asked. “The reactions come fast and furious; involving words like ‘shame,’ ‘horrible’ and, yes, even ‘tragedy.’ [But] How can the birth of a ‘normal’ child be a miracle but the birth of a child with a disability be a tragedy?”

“I had the pleasure of getting to know Sierra when she sought out an internship with the Ruderman Family Foundation and eventually worked for us this past summer,” foundation President Jay Ruderman said in a Nov. 11 article about Weiss that was posted on Gann’s website. “Rarely do I meet a young person with the drive, focus and entrepreneurial spirit as I found in Sierra, [and] I was continually impressed by her and believe she will have many successes in life,” he wrote.

“I really want to bring dance to as many children with disabilities as I can,” Weiss wrote to The Advocate. “The dance4empowerment mission is to help them improve their self-esteem, social integration and cognitive awareness through dance, music and art.”

She also wants to train disabled children to help raise money for funding inclusive community programs. “I hope to create partnerships with more programs in the Boston area, and with their Israeli counterparts, over the next few months and show people the amazing benefits dance has on people with disabilities’ nonverbal communication, gross motor coordination and balance, and self-confidence,” she wrote.

Potential partners include the Joanne Langione Dance Center, where it all began. “We have a huge recital every year in June, and I think it’d be really amazing if there were more students with disabilities performing,” she wrote The Advocate. “It would give them something to be proud of and something to look forward to.”