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Ilana's Garden, a new social program for Temple Chai special-needs teens ages 12-19 and teen volunteers in grades 8-12, promises a fun and meaningful experience for all of its participants.

The program - named in memory of Ilana Solomon, a Temple Chai special-needs congregant who died in 2001 at age 27 - is designed to "help teens of all ages and abilities to respect each other's differences and appreciate their similarities," according to a Temple Chai brochure.

After Ilana died, her parents, Judy and Marty Solomon, set up a fund at Temple Chai devoted to funding special-needs activities, according to Joe Miller, Temple Chai's executive director. After several years of discussion with the Solomons, Temple Chai staff and clergy, the idea of Ilana's Garden was born. "(The Solomons) had a vision of what they hoped we could accomplish," he says. "They had seen (Ilana) really respond when she was able to interact with teens of all abilities and that was something they wanted to see if they could foster."

Erin Wynn, Temple Chai's director of youth and family programs, heads the program, with the help of intern Ally Resnik and program adviser Ricki Light, an educational advocate and strategist and Temple Chai congregant. At every event there are also two adults in addition to the program managers who are there to help and supervise, Miller says. "If any problems come up, they are turned to immediately."

The program, which meets on Saturday nights once a month, currently has eight special-needs teens and 23 teen volunteers, Wynn says. Activities have included playing board games, painting pottery and watching a movie. Recently, the group had a Hanukkah party with latkes and a dreidel competition.

Upcoming activities will be offsite and will include attending a musical and going horseback riding, Wynn says. "We do different activities where kids can be kids and they can build relationships on top of that," she says.

Wynn has no trouble getting teens to volunteer. "I put out an application and a little bit of information ... they all volunteered and went to two trainings," she says. She's added a few volunteers since the program started in the fall because other teens hear from their friends how much they enjoy the activities. "They don't mind giving up a Saturday night."

Wynn also hears from the parents of special-needs teens about how much their children like the activities. Some have become Facebook friends with the teen volunteers, she says.

Having the program on Saturday night also gives the parents of special-needs teens a night out, Miller says. Last month several of the parents arranged to go out to dinner together while their children were attending the program. "We thought that was fantastic," he says.

Ilana's Garden activities are free and open only to Temple Chai members.

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