BY JACKIE GOLDSTEIN / // SPECIAL FOR THE AJT //
When an unimaginable tragedy took the life of Scott Tenenbaum’s dad, his mom Debra “decided not to focus on what happened ‘to’ his dad, rather what has happened ‘since’.”
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One of the most important things that happened ‘since’ took place when she found PAL: Atlanta’s only Jewish Big Brother/Big Sister program of Jewish Family & Career Services’ Child & Adolescent Services – Tools for Families division. That was about 12 years ago when Scott was not quite 5-years-old.
Scott is now a senior in high school, but he remembers how awkward it was for his family. “Other family members were grieving and they didn’t know what their role was supposed to be for me,” said Scott. “Joel was an outsider. He didn’t have any history with our family but he didn’t have to question his role – pure and simple – ‘I’m here for you’ … that was his role.”
Through the years Joel Libowsky has been that Big PAL who was there for Scott. He taught him how to tie his shoes and more importantly how to be a man. Joel even coached Scott’s flag football team and helped coach soccer.
When Scott got older they played a lot of basketball together, watched movies and just hung out.
“I have two older sisters and a mom. For me, it was a necessity. I needed a male influence,” said Scott. “Joel taught me things, not even on purpose, just from watching him. I learned the things a man is supposed to do – like grabbing the check or setting up a television. I needed somebody to be the designated role model in my life. Now whenever I’m making a big decision I always talk to Joel about it.” Scott added with a smile, “I don’t always follow his advice.”
Joel recalls all the times he “got to be a kid again” when he was with Scott, and all of the shared big moments in their lives from Scott’s Bar Mitzvah to Joel’s wedding, babies’ namings and brit milahs.
“My kids love him”, says Joel. “the PAL program made me appreciate my children and my life that much more.”
Some of Joel’s fondest memories were when all the kids and adults in the PAL program came together for events. “I loved seeing all these kids bonding with their Big PALs.”
His advice to Big PALs? “Give them your undivided attention – open up to them and let them open up to you.”
Since being in the PAL program, Joel and Scott’s relationship hasn’t changed much, just the amount of time they spend together has.
Joel has a growing family, and although time is a little more scarce these days, Joel and Scott still see each other once a month and talk frequently on the phone. Scott even babysits Joel’s three children now that he’s older.
This experience has even made him think that maybe one day he’d like to be an adult PAL.
Debra, Scott’s mom, cherishes the relationship that Scott and Joel have, “I was worried at first about things like, did Joel know how to put Scott’s seatbelt on or how to handle him if he had a meltdown? I was afraid to let him be with someone.”
But Scott was so comfortable and early on she lost her fears. “I’ve always welcomed his opinions. I know he’s got Scott’s best interest at heart. He’s helped me raise him with good values and he’s helped me see my son through someone else’s eyes that I trust. And the fact that it is a Jewish program was good for Scott – he knew that he wasn’t the only one in the community going through this.”
Debra’s advice to parents thinking about a PAL match for their child: “Don’t be afraid to let your child rely on someone else and don’t second guess the benefits it could have on every member of the family.”
PAL is a program of Child & Adolescent Servies – Tools for Families, a division of Jewish Family & Career Services.To find out more about the PAL program, contact (770) 677-9390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jackie Goldstein is a freelance writer and a former Big PAL.