“We don’t speak the same language. But a smile is universal.”
It was an hour into an eight-hour transatlantic flight from Brussels to New York, and a young boy was screaming.
“It wasn’t a child asking for a toy or saying my ears are hurting. It didn’t sound like he was going to cry himself to sleep,” Rochel Groner recalled to Southern Living. She thought to herself: “He’s upset. He’s non-verbal. He has special needs.”
Passengers were getting frustrated and tensions were building when 33-year-old Groner, a shy woman from Charlotte, decided she had to do something. Armed with only a nausea bag, a pen and her cell phone, Groner went looking for the boy. She found him sitting three rows behind her with tears streaming down his cheeks. He appeared to be about 8-years-old. His frazzled mother, dressed in traditional Muslim garb, was seated beside him.
“I just put out my hand, his back was to me but he just put his hand into mine,” Groner recalled. “It was like very surreal—it was like in slow motion.”
Though she didn’t have a set plan, Groner did have experience with special needs youth. A former elementary school teacher, she and her husband Bentzion run Friendship Circle, which pairs teen volunteers with children with special needs such as autism. They also run ZABS Place, a thrift store in Matthews, NC that employs 28 young adults with “special talents.”
With his hand in hers, Groner walked him down the aisle to a corner of an exit row. There, she pulled him into her lap, gave him a gentle but firm hug, and began to rock him. “I’ve seen through Friendship Circle that a gentle, firm hug gives them the sensory limitation that comforts them,” she noted.
Groner and her husband are Orthodox Jews and they were traveling back from a trip to Israel with the group Birthright. She got a neck pillow from one of the other Birthright participants and put it around the boy’s neck, giving him comfort and firm support. She began tracing the outline of her hand on the nausea bag as he looked on. At one point, he even traced his own hand. It went on for an hour or two, and the rest of the flight went smoothly. At one point, the boy even laughed. Their cultural and religious difference did not matter here. Their language barrier did not matter here. Groner helped the boy feel calm and safe.
“It was a matter of connecting,” Groner notes. “We don’t speak the same language. But a smile is universal. I just wanted to connect to him so he felt comfortable. I think that’s the level we connected on. The activities were secondary.”
She continued: “I never claimed to be a special needs professional. I have a Bachelor's degree in elementary education. I am not a professional. You do not have to be a professional to be compassionate and to help somebody.”
The story of Groner’s actions aboard Brussels Airlines Flight 501 has since gone viral, and Groner tells Southern Living she hopes it will empower more people to try and help in similar situations. “I’m hoping they will be inspired to ask ‘Is there something that I can do to help?’” They will either be told ‘yes can you do XY&Z’ or they will say ‘no, thank you.’ Parenting with special needs doesn’t come with a handbook. It was 2 hours of my life, but for the mom, it’s her entire life.”