She’s the woman in the photo sitting on the floor in front of the emergency exit of the plane on a transatlantic flight, with an 8-year-old African-Muslim boy in her arms. The photo went viral, and Rochel Groner, director of the Friendship Circle and ZABS Place in Charlotte, North Carolina, went back to doing what she does best.
What happened on that flight?
We were on a connecting flight via Brussels, returning from chaperoning a Birthright Israel trip. About an hour into the flight we heard wailing. It was the cry of a nonverbal child. This went on for fifteen minutes. It was getting very tense in the cabin. Flight attendants were rushing back and forth and the plane’s phones kept ringing.
What were you thinking?
I was sure that if this continued we’d have to make an emergency landing. We had seven hours of flying time ahead of us. All I could think of was the poor child. I couldn’t take it. I got out of my seat to find the kid. He was standing two rows behind me by the window. Tears were streaming down his face. I put out my hand. He gave me his hand and he was quiet. We walked up the aisle together. I sat down on the floor in front of the emergency exit. I put him on my lap and hugged him. I rocked him and we drew pictures on air sickness bags.
I was really hyper-focused. People were finally relaxing and going to sleep, and I wanted to keep him calm.
We played with my phone. One of the Birthright teens gave me a fidget spinner to use. He played with that. He laughed. I’m pretty sure he had autism. At some point he jumped into my arms, I held him. I gave him cookies. And after two hours, he got up and went back to his mom. That was it.
What made you act?
I was there, so there must have been a reason for that. I also wondered what must it be like for the mom. When things like this happen we tend to think that it’s her responsibility. But she must have been so exhausted. It doesn’t help to stand and stare in disdain waiting for the mother to “fix it.” Sometimes she can’t fix it. When you are in a situation that’s uncomfortable for everyone, the only thing to do is try to help.
I know the photo went viral, and I suppose it must have been a strange scene—me holding a boy dressed in traditional African garb, but it wasn’t a big deal. We need to remember that as cliche as it sounds, it really does takes a village—we don’t live on an island. There’s a reason why people with special needs live amongst us in our community.
You’ve done something extraordinary in your own community, raising the profile and awareness of people with special needs through ZABS Place. How did you, a Chabad representative, come to open this unique thrift shop?
I’m not a business woman, but several years ago, when a number of young adults with special needs graduated high school, their parents were at a loss. They had no structure for them, so they asked us if we’d open a group home for them.
We didn’t like the idea. In these homes, everything is generally done as a group. That’s an unfair and unrealistic expectation. Why should someone have to do something because everyone else is doing that?
I knew there had to be a better way. So I started to look around to see what employment opportunities there are for people with special needs. We saw baggers, janitors, and people watering plants. Which is all fine, but if that’s not what you want to do when you grow up, why do it?
What kind of employment do you make available at ZABS Place?
It depends on what they want to do. Some of our young adults feel anxious in social situations, so we have positions that allow them to do what they are comfortable doing. It’s not their needs that are special, it’s their talents. We have someone who cannot tell you her name, but she makes bath bombs and loofah soaps. She actually grows the loofah plant, cuts it up and puts them into bars of soap that she makes with essential oils, and we sell them. Another makes semi-precious jewelry, and another paints his interpretation of Van Gogh.
It’s so easy to discount someone with special needs but these young adults are so talented. We’ve developed a microbusiness incubator program where we help young adults who have a passion but haven’t figured out how to use it. We have five young adults in that program now.
Are all the people working at ZABS Place paid?
We have twelve paid employees at the moment. The others cannot get paid because there’s a so much bureaucracy and red tape. Typically-developing people don’t realize just how fortunate they are to have the luxury of working and getting paid for it. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 allows people with special needs to work and get paid pennies on the dollar because their productivity is compared to that of a typically-developing worker. That makes it legal to pay individuals with special needs as low as $0.34 an hour for the same work someone else is paid $7.25.
There are other rules which dictate how much money someone receiving SSI and health care benefits can make before losing them and having to pay a penalty. So for some it just isn’t worth it to get paid. But they want to do something meaningful, so we have opportunities for them too.
Why a thrift shop?
The thrift aspect mimics our mission and philosophy. We believe that everyone and everything has a purpose. When placed in the right environment and nurtured, both shine. We are committed to seeing the value of every person and every donation. We polish and sew and tweak our displays until the beauty in everything is illuminated. We upcycle things that others have discarded. We take torn jeans and make them into crossbody purses. Stained men’s shirts get their sleeves cut off and are made into wine bags. This is how we encourage our customers and community to see beyond the here-and-now and recognize potential inherent in everyone, and everything.
To learn more about what Rochel does, go to zabsplace.org.