By Avrohom Wagner
When I was invited to attend Chai4ever’s Chol Hamoed Pesach Day of Fun and Adventure at The Funplex in Mount Laurel, NJ, I thought it would be a waste of my time. As a close friend of a Chai4ever family, I am well acquainted with the great work Chai4ever does for families suffering from parental illness, and I know all about the events they hold for them; what could I possibly gain from actually seeing one?
From the moment I walked through the door I began to realize how wrong I had been. Just the sight of the refreshments carefully laid out in advance of the parents and children’s arrival shattered my perceptions. Words and numbers simply cannot do justice to the vision of food, snacks and drinks of all kinds neatly prepared for over 1000 people. The enormity of the logistical planning that has to go into an event like this was brought home to me in a way that no abstract knowledge could have accomplished.
When the families began to arrive, I watched as they were each greeted and given a pass for unlimited rides and arcades. (I had never before heard of having unlimited arcade games, but watching the kids play excitedly, without a care, I wonder why it isn’t the standard! Just one more example of Chai4ever going the extra mile.) Volunteers were standing ready, and they whisked the children off to the roller coasters, go-karts, and games. I saw parent after parent visibly relax with the knowledge that their children would be enjoying themselves for the next few hours.
Taking a stroll through the facility, I was struck by the difference between the families I had seen walking in, and those who were playing inside. The same people who had looked so stressed and careworn a few minutes before were now happily schmoozing, bowling, playing games or just taking it all in. The atmosphere of caring, togetherness, and pure joy was unmistakable. “When I’m with a Chai4ever group, I never have to worry about people staring at me with pity, or making well-meaning but hurtful comments,” one father told me. “I feel like I’m with friends, and I can just enjoy my family.”
There was also a powerful sense of security. From the Hatzolah members standing by with an ambulance, just in case, to the calm competence of the ubiquitous volunteers, it was clear that Chai4ever was ready to handle whatever might happen. I know from personal experience how challenging trips can be when medical difficulties are a factor. Chai4ever was clearly determined that none of their families should have any concerns on that account.
The greatest part of the experience, of course, was watching the children run and play. Once again, I found my preconceived notions woefully insufficient to the reality. Take a group of kids who are under stresses that no child should ever have to face, due to their parent’s serious illness. Give them a dream of a Chol Hamoed trip, complete with trips, games, and rides in a facility operating way under capacity, so there is little to no waiting on line, and what do you get? Please believe me when I tell you that if you have never been at a Chai4ever event, and you think you know the answer to that question, you are so wrong. You really cannot fathom it if you haven’t seen it.
The day finished with a concert. I’ll be honest – music is really not my thing, so I thought I would leave early. I am so glad I didn’t. The ruach was completely absorbing, like nothing I have ever experienced. Seeing seriously ill parents and their children dancing together with true Simchas Yom Tov could move a stone to tears. I was especially touched by watching the volunteers dance around one wheelchair-bound father, a Rebbi who suffers from multiple sclerosis. As he rejoiced with them, and they with him, the Chizuk flowing in both directions was electric. I left the room uplifted, inspired, and incredibly moved.
I know it’s somewhat oxymoronic for me to sit here and try to describe to you a gathering that I keep saying is indescribable, but what can I do? After seeing some of their work firsthand, I am more determined than ever to do whatever I can to help Chai4ever. The pain, isolation, and stress of parental illness are crushing, and our community is fortunate to have an organization that works tirelessly to mitigate and alleviate them. Please visit www.chai4ever.org to learn more about what they do and how you can help, and who knows? Maybe you, too, will get to experience the unimaginable!