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JFS revitalizes exceptional needs program
September 22nd, 2006
Sherman Park resident Terry Miller said that as the mother of an exceptional needs child it is so fun to see her daughter Shira, a second-grader at Yeshiva Elementary School, walking to school with a group of children, laughing, ponytail flying, seeing herself as one of the gang.
When she goes to school every morning I say thanks to HaShem for putting us in this incredible community that provides, through Jewish Family Services Keshet program, the support Shira needs to go to school with her siblings, neighbors and members of her shul, Miller said.
Keshet, which for more than 10 years has provided support services that enable Jewish children with exceptional needs to attend Jewish day or synagogue religious schools, has been a big success, according to several parents who spoke with The Chronicle this week.
But until now, once a child completed middle school, there was a gap in JFS services until later in adulthood.
Steven Weingrod, JFS volunteer and parent of an exceptional needs son, said that his son Sol, now 22, was one of the original beneficiaries of Keshet services when he was in fifth grade at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School.
But about a year ago, Sol, who was attending Milwaukee Area Technical College, suffered a breakdown and did not find appropriate services close to home.
When these sorts of things happen, most people go to hospitals, but they turn out to be emergency room-type care. They try to stabilize the person but its not a recovery model of care, Weingrod said.
Sol is now recovering in a residential recovery center in another state.
That gap in the continuum of care for people with exceptional needs impelled JFS to undertake a thorough review of their current services and plan for the future.
JFS exceptional needs program was created by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation in 1984 with the expectation that JFS would develop it, according to JFS Vice President of Exceptional Needs Judy Strauss.
And it really hadnt been looked at since its inception, other than a few innovations made in the early 1990s, she said.
It needed a revitalization. At one time it was highlighted and everyone knew about it, but gradually it went into the shadows, said Strauss. It continued to do wonderful work, but without changes and with a dwindling number of people entering the program as the older people died.
JFS knew that some parts of the developmentally disabled and mentally ill populations like teens and young adults were not being served. So in September 2005, it hired the health care and human services management consulting firm E jj Olson & Associates to assess its exceptional needs program and initiate a strategic planning process.
The plan would provide JFS a framework in which to better understand the populations served with special emphasis on addressing the needs of exceptional needs individuals in a comprehensive, compassionate and cost effective manner, according to the plans final report.
JFS also created an Exceptional Needs Advisory Committee made up of board members, staff, community activists, federation leaders, other professionals in the field and concerned parents to consider multiple perspectives and implement the plan.
It is a well-informed committee with a passionate interest in supporting exceptional needs individuals and their families, Strauss said.
Linda Bader, Helen Bader Foundation director and a parent of Alex, 6, an exceptional needs child, co-chaired the advisory committee with Robyn Glick, secretary of JFS.
Bader said, JFS is really working hard to coordinate all the Jewish agencies and non-Jewish nonprofits so there is no duplication of services and to make sure no children are left behind without services.
JFS seeks to provide assistance from birth on, not only by offering services but also by informing clients about what services are available, what organization provides those services, how to reach those organizations, and referral to a variety of services, Bader said.
The strategic planning process helped JFS understand what services they and other nonprofits are not providing, and it helped them decide what path to take, she added.
The process identified another serious gap in services for older adults who were no longer able to live completely independently but not yet in need of nursing home care.
For people after 60, being enrolled in family care programs allows them to remain in their homes for as long as possible. Prior to that, they would end up in nursing homes, which restricted them more than was appropriate for their condition, Strauss said.
Started with high school
JFS first step is to develop a high school program, which is urgently needed, according to Strauss. We knew of Keshet graduates and we knew they were struggling, and some parents asked for help, she said.
Yisroel Mendlowitz is one of three high school students to begin receiving support from JFS exceptional needs program this fall.
Until this year, Yisroel attended Yeshiva Elementary School through the Keshet program and he was very happy there, according to his mother Tzipora Mendlowitz. But, now that he is almost 15, we really didnt know what we would do with him this year, she said.
When the new program was launched, she learned that Yisroel would be able to attend the Wisconsin Institute of Torah Study (WITS) in the morning and could receive vocational training at YES in the afternoon.
Im thrilled with the program, Tzipora Mendlowitz said. And Yisroel is so happy because he went to the next step and he feels like a high school boy.
His attitude reflects an increase in maturity. Its so important for his emotional health, she said.
Every morning at WITS, he prays and eats breakfast with the other students and then receives instruction from a peer tutor and later from an exceptional needs teacher. His mother picks him up at 11:30 a.m. and takes him home for lunch and then drops him off at YES at 12:30 p.m.
Together with another YES graduate who also attends WITS in the morning, Yisroel learns some Hebrew and then turns to practicing vocational skills that will lead to increased independence.
Tzipora Mendlowitz said that the two boys are comfortable at YES and they were welcomed there by the school, but they now are not treated as students.
Rather, they learn life and vocational skills by operating a small business, called The YES Men, a framework for vocational learning created by Rachel Nelson, the assistant director of Keshet and coordinator of JFS new high school program.
The YES Men created a flyer for teachers mailboxes advertising the services they offer, which include making photocopies, collating papers, helping in the library, and die cutting, among other things.
Their trainer, whom they refer to as their supervisor, is right there with them, guiding them, Tzipora Mendlowitz said.
They must fill in a sign-in sheet when they arrive at work and they are paid for their work with facsimiles of money. That money is then used to teach financial skills beginning with making change. Eventually they will be paid by check and will learn check-related financial skills.
We are striving to expand their [working] opportunities out into the community, but they are in demand at YES and are very busy right now, Nelson said.
Tzipora Mendlowitz said that she has never seen her son Yisroel get dressed so fast in the morning. He looks forward to going to WITS so much that he is ready to go early every day.
Hes so happy I cant even tell you. I wish I could videotape his smile.