by Vivian Henoch

Where sibling rivalry is a given in most families, Jessica Goldberg has turned her particular challenge into a special gift. Last year, with the blessing of her family and the support of Sammi Shapiro, Administrative Assistant to the Education Department at Adat Shalom Synagogue, Jessica established the community she calls Sib4Sib. A unique peer-to-peer concept, Sib4Sib is a network for individuals ages 6 to 18 to work out their frustrations and share their experiences of having a sibling struggling with serious mental health issues such as ADHD/ADD, Anxiety, Depression, ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorder).

A teen with an impressive resume: Jessica Goldberg’s age is but a minor detail. At 16, she possesses every quality of a social entrepreneur:  creativity, self-confidence, perseverance, leadership, adaptability and enthusiasm. A self-starter, a member of the Teen Board of The Jewish Fund and Friendship Circle’s UMatter, V.P. of Teen Volunteer Corps, a fundraiser (and a quick study in the subject of Michigan tax code), it goes almost without saying that Jessica is an exceptional student about to enter her junior year at North Farmington High School.

For Jessica, the grades and the creds are just the details. Talking about her family life, the courage of her parents and the challenges of her brother who struggles with a mental illness, Jessica is the real deal.  Where once she hid the facts about her struggles at home, she is now an open book on the subject.

At a recent a program presented by Friendship Circle’s UMatter, she shared her story.  “Since I was young, I have been along for the ride at weekly therapy sessions where thousands of medication combinations were suggested and prescribed. I was there for the melt downs in shopping excursions at Target. I was there for the protests about leaving the house. And I am here today for my sibling. I want to be the person to tell you, ‘You are not alone.’”

“My childhood has not been perfect,” says Jessica.” But I couldn’t ask for better parents.  Both are in the medical field; my mom is a nurse and my dad is an internist, and this is a blessing for my sibling and for me. Both of my parents accept mental illness for what it is – a disease of  the mind.  Never have they assigned blame or denied the validity of my brother’s struggles. They work hard – every day – and there’s never a moment when they’re done and say they can’t handle the situation. And always they’ve made it clear to me that I am the sibling — that’s my role in the family —not a third parent.

In conversation with Sib4Sib’s Jessica Goldberg

myJewishDetroit: Talk about exceptional teens, how did you turn your personal experience into

In my experience, I have found that there are plenty of resources directed at children affected by mental health issues and tons of resources for their parents. But there was nothing for a sibling.

In my search for answers, I couldn’t have asked for a better adult adviser than Sammi Shapiro. I’m in the Adat Shalom Hebrew High School Program, where Sammi works and we attended an event together focusing on mental health.

Like so many of those types of events –  there were about 40 resource tables providing information on various mental health organizations and support groups. I stopped at every one of those tables and asked if they had anything for families –  not even siblings specifically – just families – and not one had anything specifically for me. In fact, none of them even had referrals for us.

So, I’m thinking, I’m 15, I can do this! And right there, I went up to Sammi and told her that my next project was to start up an organization for siblings.  And she said, ‘Ok!’  And the very same the week, she emailed me am application for a grant from the Deutsch Family Fund for Teen Innovation.

From desire to start-up, I wrote the grant proposal with Sammi’s help.   Filling in all the blanks on that application helped to organize our thoughts, forced us to focus on the mission and  turn what was just the concept of Sib4Sib into a reality.

From the start, Sammi understood my vision. Even though I was only 15 at the time, she knew what I was capable of doing and she trusted that I’d come to her for help when I needed it. As my mentor, Sammi always has been there to give me advice, but not to make decisions for me, and that’s why we have this great chemistry.

myJD: How does Sib4Sib work?  Who facilitates the program?

Dr. Dana Shapero, a psychologist who specializes in teen mental health, has served as our facilitator since October 2017.  Dr. Shapero connected with us through a program for parents that Rabbi Rachel Shere held at Adat Shalom. What started as a collaboration with that program expanded to Sib4Sib’s format, now serving approximately 15 teens ranging in age from 12-18. Sib4Sib is 100% confidential. Members of the group remain completely anonymous. Upon registering for the program, both participants and parents receive confidentiality contracts. Groups meet twice a month on Thursday nights in five-week sessions from 6 to 8 pm.

I set up an outline for each session and clear it with Sammi and Dr. Shapero. We start with dinner and about 15 minutes to socialize, then open the group up to discussion – sharing things that might be coming up or happening at home. Once the group is comfortable, the talk gets easy.  If not, I have a list of questions that usually prompt useful discussion. For example: “What’s a rule in your house that you think is unfair that applies to you and not your sibling?”

Once the conversation settles in, Dr. Shapero teaches us a coping mechanism – a useful strategy that not only applies having a sibling, but also works with any aspect of everyday living.

myJD: What’s next for Sib4Sib? And what challenges do you face in expanding it? 

I have so many ideas! But I also know the only way to build Sib4Sib is step by step. We have a waiting list for current program and a desire, but no funding as of yet, to extend the program to younger sibs, ages 6 to 11.

Challenges?  In spite of our growing numbers, we still find that there are some barriers to recruiting teens to the program. Many don’t want to admit there’s a problem at home, or that it’s affecting them negatively. And often we hear kids just don’t think they have the time to attend.

As we’ve experienced, recruitment for Sib4Sib programming will continue to be confidential, peer-to-peer and face-to-face. Thanks to Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, Director of UMatter, and at his invitation, I was able to share my story with an audience of more than 200 at an event in April, “The One Thing I Wish You Knew About Me.” That one event raised awareness of the need for our program and doubled the number of our participants.

myJD: Overall, what would you say to a teen thinking about participating in Sib4Sib?  

I think there’s a mental health epidemic in America. The program we started for teens with sibs struggling with mental health ties into everyone’s mental health overall.

We all have something to share. I have an amazing brother who also happens to have an illness that challenges all of us in our family. Because of him, I have gained incredible patience, empathy and an independent spirit.  If I had not gone through these struggles at home, I would not have been able to start Sib4Sib to help others.

The only difference between being a participant in Sib4Sib and being its President and Founder is that I’ve come to this out of strength and want to give back in the skills I’ve learned in the process.  The truth is that we’re all in this together. No one should shoulder their burdens alone.

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