I had never properly been exposed to people with special needs, so whenever I did I got awkward around them.

It all started on my gap year away in Israel, Israel by Choice 2012 when I had to choose which volunteering I wanted to participate in. Initially I chose to volunteer in an old age home because I was used to that, having elderly grandparents. In the end it wasn’t for me, so I dropped it. After this encounter, through a lot of convincing and encouragement I decided that it was time to step out of my comfort zone completely, which led me to volunteering at a special needs centre.

As I arrived there with a group of friends I was secretly freaking out, being surrounded by another world; I had no idea what to do or how to be. I awkwardly “faked it till I made it” and took it step by step as I was instructed. Slowly I got to understand the ways of this new beautiful and appreciative environment and made connections with the participants, even through a high five or a smile or a wave. It was those moments that I felt something I had never really felt before. I still talk about my Israeli buddies and reminisce about all those memories to this very day.

Upon returning home from IBC I felt the need to continue what I was doing from my year away because it was the happiest I had ever been, which is why I say it was the beginning of my life changing journey. One of the platforms I knew of before I went away was Friendship Circle so I began to volunteer there and have been there ever since.

My first time at Friendship Circle was so confronting; it had been a while since I had volunteered so I was still feeling very awkward and uncomfortable. I remember at the end of the day someone asked me how It was and I said it was scary, I just don’t know if I was doing the right thing or not. I was always so envious watching people who had such a strong connection with the participants and I wanted to learn from them. As time went on and the more experience I gained it became like second nature – I went almost weekly, I made friends and I learnt so much about interacting with children and young adults through various forms of verbal and non verbal communication. It helped through being so hands on. I began studying community services and now I’m working for the amazing organization and cannot even believe how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learnt about others and about myself over the past few years. The participants are my friends who I enjoy hanging out with regularly, and who make me laugh so much; its one of the most special feelings.

My friends with special needs are just like me; we talk and laugh over the same things, we share the same interests whether its footy, going for yochi, shopping, listening to music, going for a walk or to the park or beach, playing uno, bowling, going to see a movie or for a coffee. They are my friends who make life that much more fun, interesting and meaningful and are so loving, warm, friendly and happy.

Everyone is unique in their own way, we all have our challenges; life would be boring if everyone were the same and had no problems. So at the end of the day we are all people. It should be a given that everyone is and feels included. You just can’t know until you try.

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Karni Baker
Karni is an active member of the Jewish community who is passionate about volunteering, Tikkun Olam, Israel and Judaism. Upon returning from her 10 months gap year on Israel By Choice, she has spent time on the committees of Challah for Hunger and Zooz, as well as volunteering with Save a Child's Heart, Stand Up, Flying Fox and Friendship Circle. She also has a drink bottle obsession!

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