Social Workers Make our Community Stronger!

Jewish tradition teaches that all humans are created B’Tselem Elokhim–in the image of G-d. This inherently teaches us that regardless of our differences, each one of us contains the beauty and spirit of G-d. It also reminds us that in our unique creation, we find strength and the capacity to grow. Implicit in our religion, we find differences among our fellow person, and we are commanded to not only accept those differences but celebrate them by treating everyone with love and kindness (Gemilut Chasadim). One of our most important responsibilities at Jewish Family & Children’s Service is to help each client find meaning in their life, regardless of their challenges.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month–or JDAIM. The goal of JDAIM is to unite Jewish communities in raising awareness and championing the rights of all Jews–and all people to be respected, valued, and included in every aspect of communal life. Our commitment to creating and nurturing an inclusive community is more important now than ever before.

The diversity of our Jewish community is a like an exquisite hand-woven quilt. Each small square contributes to the beauty and warmth of a large tapestry that envelops everyone within its strength and power. Part of our diversity includes individuals living with disabilities.

As with most issues, there are a diverse range of disabilities. People in our community live with neurological, physical, and emotional disabilities. For some, they may be very visible, and for others, you may never know their challenges. Additionally, many people develop disabilities later in life due to age or medical conditions. For some, disabilities interfere with people’s daily existence; for others they may have found ways to cope and manage. Regardless of the severity of disability, society must make room for everyone and understand that we are all deserving of support, services, and acceptance.

According to the World Health Organization, 16% of the world’s population has a significant disability. This puts them at greater risk of developing depression, stroke, obesity, and other physical conditions. It also puts them at a higher risk for experiencing poverty, discrimination, health inequities, and more. But these statistics don’t show the true picture of the countless family members, colleagues, friends, and loved ones who are also affected.

While JFCS provides services and support to people with disabilities in every department, I want to highlight the work of our Disability Services Department, an area of the agency dedicated to serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Our staff addresses the needs of clients across a spectrum of abilities and challenges. Day in and day out, they strive to ensure that our clients and their families find the connection, independence, support, and self-determination they so richly deserve.

Each year, we serve more than 300 people living with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Through supported employment, social and educational programs, culinary training, employment counseling and coaching, life skills training, and more, our clients create their own paths of success and excel in their lives and our community. Each one of these programs is unique, but they all build on the strength and resilience of our clients. Let me tell you about just a few.

Led by a professional chef and an occupational therapist, students in our Soups and Sweets culinary training program gain vital skills that prepare them for careers in food service or hospitality. Members of our TOPS (To Our Positive Success) day program explore their creativity, develop key social skills, and learn vital life skills through yoga and fitness, music programs, culinary workshops, creative arts, and community outings.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, SAIL (Supports to Achieve Independent Living) offers social outings, recreational opportunities, and life skills support for adults aged 21 and over. Many of our SAIL participants have been with us since the very beginning, and they have grown and matured along with the program. Members of SAIL will be featured at our Stepping Out annual fundraiser on Thursday, Apr. 11. I hope to see you there! For reservations and more information, visit jfcssnj.org/steppingout

Clients in our Supported Employment Program receive training and long-term follow-along support in the workplace, enabling them to reach their full potential through meaningful, community-based employment. This gem of a program has helped hundreds of clients over the years. For me, a highlight of the JFCS calendar is the annual Dubrow Vocational Celebration, which honors several Supported Employment clients, along with their employers. Please save the date and join us for this year’s event on Friday, May 10.

One of the newest services JFCS offers is Benefits Counseling, which educates and empowers clients who work and receive Social Security disability benefits. The goal is to help clients understand how work can affect any government benefits they receive while working. Clients can meet with our benefits counselor, who underwent specialized training to understand Social Security incentives and procedures.

Finally, a hidden gem in our agency is our Self-Hired Respite program. Many parents of children with disabilities have higher stress levels and increased expenses for care. Through the NJ Department of Children and Families, JFCS provides reimbursement for families to hire their own caregiver or babysitter for up to 20 hours per month. This service provides much-needed support and care for families, as well as financial relief. To get started, please email respite@jfedsnj.org or call us at 856-424-1333, ext. 1106.

Believe it or not, the programs I’ve highlighted give you just a small glimpse of the incredible things that happen every day at JFCS! To learn more about our work with and for individuals with disabilities, visit jfcssnj.org/disability-services

My personal and professional experiences have shown me that inclusion is the cornerstone of a flourishing community. Let’s all use JDAIM as an opportunity to shine a light on the importance of ensuring that everyone feels valued, welcome, and included here in our South Jersey community. I promise you that our lives will be the richer for it.