A Tribute to Donny Morris a”h and the i-Shine Community

Submitted by an anonymous i-Shine Teaneck parent

Last Friday, I went for a walk in the rain.  As the rain poured down on me and the wind blew hard against my face, I felt as though the earth was feeling my emotions with me.  And I still was yet to make the even more personal connection to sweet Donny Morris a”h.  In her eulogy, Donny’s mother sought to capture the essence of her beloved son and cited qualities and experiences to be remembered.  Among them was his devotion to i-Shine, Chai Lifeline’s afterschool program for children living with illness or loss in their family.  Donny, it turns out, spent his high school senior year hanging out twice a week after school with my children.  I feel it is befitting to note, from my perspective, what that meant.

While each family’s story is unique, there is a shared concern for how their children will experience their challenge.  And so i-Shine was created to be a meeting place for kids to get their homework done, eat dinner and snacks, play games, have fun, and get to be in the company of the coolest seniors around.  These seniors volunteer their time after school to show these kids a great time.  From an i-Shine parent’s perspective, there is a wide range of emotion from gratitude to awe and deep sense of indebtedness for every person involved in playing a truly transformative role in their child’s life.

Each high school student may have different motivations for becoming i-Shine counselors, but the magnitude of their influences in these children’s lives is profound.  For a young mom with a breast cancer diagnosis, an aggressive treatment plan, and awareness of the toll this will take on the attention she can give her family, i-Shine counselors are nothing short of heroic.  So too, for the children who have lost a parent or whose parents are inundated tending to an ill sibling, i-Shine counselors become their heroes too. The knowledge of children’s needs being met at i-Shine is restorative to a parent and enables them to focus on their own health or bereavement.  i-Shine counselors may see it as simply a fun time hanging out with young kids, and the best part is that the kids then see it that way, too.  Being together is not about anyone’s individual situation, but just a collective group of people who want to do really nice things for each other.  

While many have aptly referred to Donny as an angel, I want to share how he was an angel in the context of i-Shine.  When Donny chose to volunteer for i-Shine, he chose more than just an after-school activity.  He chose a chevra to surround himself with that was united by a shared desire to make other people’s lives easier and happier.  On a weekly basis, Donny mentored the kids with true joy, whether coaching them through solving a math problem, playing line up on the basketball court, or just hanging out with these kids that could not believe how lucky they were to have these incredible older friends.

On a more personal note, I have been learning more about specific behind the scenes kindnesses that Donny performed as an i-Shine counselor.  It started even before he arrived at the i-Shine program.  One of Donny’s friends and fellow i-Shine counselors, Mendel Hein, shared they had one car at Yeshiva that would head to i-Shine and eight MTA seniors who needed a ride.  There was room for five in the car and the other three would have to make other arrangements (which i-Shine would help facilitate).  “Obviously,” he said, “we would all want a seat in the car… except for Donny who really didn’t care to fight for a seat.  He usually just let another guy take the seat in the car.” 

Mendel also recalled, “Donny had an eighth grader for i-Shine, making the job a bit harder than your average nine- or ten-year-old there. But Donny loved doing it and just played basketball with him almost the entire time.”  Additionally, while i-Shine would generously host birthday parties complete with a birthday cake and gifts on a child’s birthday, Mendel remembered “that Donny got his kid a birthday present on his own which was something that most people didn’t do.”          

When I received a call from Chai Lifeline checking in on how my children were doing, considering Donny was their i-Shine counselor, I was deeply moved and pained, and a bit confused.  I thought I knew all my children’s counselors by name.  I reached out to one of their counselors, Shaya Goldberg, who explained that Donny would hang out with my children together with him.  Not only was Donny devoted to his own i-Shine child and to the overall group, but he went above and beyond to connect with other individual kids within the group, as well as to support his friends. The power of an individual to lift a child out of their concerns and make them feel like a star, is probably one of the most amazing superpowers a person can have, and that is precisely what Donny did.  And he did it for so many.  The positive influences of that year resonate well beyond and become incorporated into the children’s personal narratives. 

How I wish I could personally thank Donny for what he did for my family.  By being there for my children in his sweet and unassuming way, he brought comfort to so many more than he realized.  Those ripple effects of kindness that he set in motion will reach far and wide and go on eternally.  They provided the sweetest distraction from a strenuous situation and will undoubtedly inspire countless others to pay it forward and help others.  It is my hope and prayer that the continuous acts of kindness that will be done, as inspired by Donny, will bring comfort to Donny’s family, friends, and Klal Yisrael, and be a zechut for an aliyah of Donny’s holy neshama.

As we try to muster the faith and strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other, the seasons will undoubtedly change.  We will walk through all kinds of temperatures, climates, and terrain.  Every wind and every rain contain divine energy that can connect us with the ultimate comfort that can only come from God.  May the acts of kindness like those shown by Donny Morris a”h and the i-Shine community provide warmth and light along the way.     

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