As we know, special needs children come in all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds and ethnicities. We recently learned that Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican party’s nominee for vice president gave birth to a son with Down’s Syndrome just a few months ago. For several decades now, Jewish communities around the globe have stepped up to the plate to address this paramount issue with a great measure of determination. They have labored assiduously to create organizations that will provide the optimal level of care and education for these special souls. Yet, for some severely autistic children in our community at large, it would appear that even the most experienced educators and institutions have failed in their attempts to reach deep within them, leaving the average person with the impression that the autistic child lives in their own isolated, dark, lonely and uncommunicative world.
Enter Lisa Chin, a bright, charming 36-year-old Tae Kwon Do instructor who holds a 1st degree black belt. Back in 2006, Ms. Chin developed a highly originative program in martial arts, that has produced stellar results for her autistic clients. “The name of my program is called ‘FirefliesNY’ because despite the impression that most people have of children with autism, I truly believe if we can reach these special souls with love, they can actually illuminate the world, just like little fireflies at night that brighten up the dense darkness”, said Ms. Chin.
Ms. Chin relocated to the New York City area 14 years ago from her native Chicago along with an impressive array of credentials. She has an MS degree in Special Education and regular education and has received her clearance as a certified ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapist. During her six plus years as a special education teacher at Brooklyn’s MS 443, Ms. Chin acquired a deep affinity for children with autism. It was then that she decided that her life’s mission would be to synthesize her background in martial arts with her special education training and create a program specifically designed to bring out the best in autistic kids. Hence, “Fireflies New York” (FirefliesNY) was born.
“It was while I was a special education teacher in Brooklyn that I realized I have a magical connection of sorts with children with autism. I knew in my heart that they could make even greater progress with simple life skills if only we could find a way to enhance their confidence and self-esteem” Ms. Chin said with great exuberance. Fully cognizant that each child’s abilities and needs are distinct, Ms. Chin works in conjunction with the child’s occupational and physical therapists as well as parents and other teachers to design a personalized program of growth and productivity for each child. “Although my program welcomes all children, from all walks of life, as it turns out, the vast majority of my students are Jewish children and many of them are Orthodox Jews, so I also consult with Rabbis and religious community leaders as well”, adds Ms. Chin.
Reflecting on how it all began Ms. Chin said, “Through word of mouth, parents of kids with autism heard about my mind-body connection program and asked me to come to their homes and work with their kids” recalls Ms. Chin. It appears that the appeal of martial arts, with an emphasis on Tae Kwon Do has worked wonders with her clientele. With tears welling up in her eyes, Ms. Chin says, “For the first time in their young lives, some of my students have said their first word or waved their hands for the first time after attending my classes.” In time, the FirefliesNY program grew exponentially and Ms. Chin was forced to move from her studio apartment to a duplex apartment in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn where she has small group sessions lasting 45 minutes and are limited to four students per class..
Her program includes tactile sensory activities that promote gross and fine motor skills enhancement, along with exercises in stretching, breathing, balancing, kicking, punching, blocking and jumping over moving objects. In addition to building self-esteem, Ms. Chin believes that the study of Tae Kwon Do can bring a sense of calmness to her students, both physically and spiritually and can help to increase focus, reduce stress, anxiety and aggression and assists in minimizing “meltdowns” that often impede the progress of autistic children. “What is really important” says Ms. Chin, is that “a child with autism who studies martial arts can build strong bridges between their mind and body and between their inside self and the world outside.”
Steven (Shmuel) Gershbein is a noted Brooklyn attorney and activist for the rights of the special needs community and also a parent of student in Ms. Chin’s program. “I am the primary caregiver for my son, Baruch Shlomo who is severely autistic and I must say that for the past nine years, I have taken him to scores of physical and occupational therapists and nobody, but nobody has been able to reach him. Lisa Chin is the only professional that he listens to and I am exceptionally gratified by the results that Ms. Chin has produced with my son”, Mr. Gershbein says with enormous appreciation. “I must say that as a parent, I shep loads of nachas watching my son do drop kicks and karate chops. His confidence and self-esteem is at an all time high and I can’t thank Hashem enough for bringing Ms.Chin in to my son’s life”, he says with much joy.
Commenting on the painful bureaucracy that often plagues various agencies whose raison d’etre it is to deal with the challenges of special needs patients and those who are mentally ill, Mr. Gershbein intones,”I feel that I speak from a platform of experience when I say that I was employed by a state agency whose purpose it was to protect the civil rights of special needs patients and the mentally ill, but was, in reality top heavy with burned out politicians and not gutsy litigators.” He adds that, “My son resides in an institution operated under the auspices of The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and in my opinion it is an organization where the vast majority of its administrators are neither pro-Jewish or pro-Family. The numerous flaws in this broken system can only be corrected with the blessings of the Almighty and the type of creativity, warmth and love that Lisa Chin brings to the negotiating table – or to the dojo, as it were.”
Ms. Chin has received calls from parents and educators in almost every major city in the United States, asking her to set up similar Fireflies programs. “Right now, we’re being deluged with requests to come out to Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles, and while I would love to expand my program but finding the right people to train is a challenge. I do have several wonderful volunteers who assist me with the classes and work so well with my students and I hope to have more in the future” an optimistic Ms. Chin says.
For those wishing to contact Lisa Chin, you may do so by calling her at: 718-355-9480 or she can be reached by e-mail at; firstname.lastname@example.org. Her web address is: www.firefliesny.com. (Ms. Chin also has a “Sponsor-a-child” program where you can assist with a child’s tuition).
Fern Sidman holds a B.A, in political science from Brooklyn College. She was the educational coordinator for the Betar Youth Movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was national director of the Jewish Defense League from 1983-1985. She was a researcher for several books written by Rabbi Meir Kahane, ZTK”L. She was the managing editor of the publication entitled, The Voice of Judea, and is a regular contributor to its web site. She is currently a writer and journalist living in New York City. Her articles have appeared in The Jewish Press, The Jewish Advocate, The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, and numerous Jewish and general web sites including, Front Page Magazine, Daniel Pipes and Michael Freund.
We are delighted to have Ms. Sidman as a regular contributor to the Jesus is Lord, A Worshipping Christian’s Blog.