There’s volunteering, and then there’s volunteering at Shalva. The first is something fun, the latter something transforming, inspiring and life-changing.

Shalva is an organization in Jerusalem dedicated to transforming the lives of those with disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome. This past summer I had the privilege of volunteering at Shalva for 2½ weeks, and it was hands down the best 2½ weeks of my life.

My mission was simple: Be a counselor for an after-school program for kids from difficult homes. I would help them with homework, run activities to teach them life lessons such as being a good friend, play with them on Shalva’s double-decker playground, and simply be an older sister and mentor to them.

The task didn’t seem too daunting, but nonetheless it was an important one.

When I arrived at Shalva, I was a nervous wreck. The building was enormous, and I was afraid I would feel like an outsider because I didn’t know anyone or speak fluent Hebrew.

But I was also excited — excited to meet the kids and excited to meet my co-counselors, volunteers and bnot sherut (National Service women) from all over Israel.

I looked around. Kids were running between swings, smiles plastered across their faces, while the bnot sherut and volunteers playfully chased them. I felt the joy around me begin to diffuse throughout my body. I felt a tug at my legs, urging me to join in the fun.

Suddenly, a small, pudgy hand grabbed mine. My heart skipped a beat, and I looked down. Standing there was boy, no more than 7 years old, smiling at me while swinging my hand back and forth.

“Mi at?” he asked. “Who are you?”

Ani Eliana,” I answered. “Vi mi atah (and who are you)?”

He told me his name is Gavriel, and he dragged me into the building, payot swaying back and forth, eager to get inside and get the afternoon started. (Note that the names in this article have been changed to protect people’s privacy.)

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of activity. I met the kids who would be my chanichim (campers) and got to know my co-counselor Sarah, a first-year bat sherut whose parents started Shalva when her brother Yossi began to improve after becoming deaf, blind and acutely hyperactive because of a faulty vaccination as a baby.

After a jam-packed day of first-grade math, dodgeball in the gymboree’s ball pit and Israeli pop music, Sarah and I sat in our room, exhausted but invigorated. We talked about our kids, each one with a specific story for being at Shalva.

Some had fathers who walked out on them. Others had siblings with severe diseases. All had some type of learning disability.

“What is Gavriel’s specific reason for being here?” I asked.

“He comes from a Haredi family with 10 other children. He doesn’t get a lot of attention at home,” Sarah said.

I thought about that for a while. How could I help Gavriel? How could I, besides being his counselor, make him feel noticed, appreciated and loved?

I decided that I would, as small as it may seem, work with him during homework time. With all the kids tapping my shoulder, needing help on this or that, I knew it would make him feel special if I chose him above everyone else.

The next day when it came time for homework, I went straight to Gavriel and asked whether he wanted help on his kriyah (reading). He responded with a smile. A smile so wide it could have split the sea. A smile that spoke a thousand words.

For the next two weeks I found ways to cater to each of my chanichim individually. For Malki, I played soccer with him in the hallway when his anger got the best of him. For Adin, I raced her to the music room and back when she couldn’t contain her energy. I made each and every one of my kids feel special.

And in return, they made me feel special. Every time I walked into the Shalva building, I was bombarded with hugs. Every time I left, I was bombarded with shouts of “See you tomorrow!” and more hugs.

When the 2½ weeks were up, I felt as if I didn’t have nearly enough time with my chanichim, yet I felt as if they were younger siblings I had been with forever. I was sad to leave but excited to see how much they would grow while I was gone.

Before I left, Sarah and our chanichim made me a booklet. It was covered in drawings and personalized letters to me, along with a keychain that pictured our entire group.

When I read the letters, I began to cry. Some of the letters wished me good luck in Atlanta; I hadn’t realized that the chanichim remembered where I lived. To not only feel the impact on the kids, but also to have proof that I made an impression on their lives was something I had never felt before.

It takes much more than words to explain Shalva and what it does for the kids. It takes even more than that to explain how Shalva affects you as a person. I left Shalva as someone more compassionate. More patient. More empathetic.

I left Shalva as someone who looked at a person and didn’t see the background or the disability but saw who that person really was. Saw the likes and dislikes, the personality, and the neshama (soul).

I left Shalva a better person.

I and six other students from Atlanta Jewish Academy are trying to raise $21,000 for Shalva. This is no easy task. As much as we email friends and family, getting that much money only from familiar faces is nearly impossible.

This is where we need your help. If you go to www.run4shalva.org/my/atlantajewishacademy, you can donate to help us help Shalva. Even if you can’t donate money, sending the link to your family and friends helps spread the word about this amazing organization.

The same way each and every interaction you have with a kid at Shalva makes a difference in his or her life, each and every dollar given to the organization helps make Shalva possible. You too can make a difference.

In addition, we will be running the Jerusalem Marathon in March as a part of Team Shalva. If you are interested in joining, email me at 20egoldin@atljewishacademy.org.

Shalva can’t function without donations. For every service Shalva offers, it doesn’t charge the families even a shekel. It provides care not only for all of Jerusalem, but also for all of Israel.

There is no other center like Shalva anywhere in the world, much less anywhere in Israel. Shalva needs us, and we need organizations like Shalva that help open our eyes and create more compassionate people.