You wouldn’t normally think the lunch-hour crunch at a kosher eatery or a stop at your local CVS is inspiring. Think again.
Note the young men and women with developmental disabilities proudly clearing the tables or stocking shelves; they’ve got jobs to do—a privilege they had only dreamed about, until recently.
Thanks to the Yachad Vocational Services Department’s job skills and social skills training, between forty to fifty of its eighty-five members currently work at establishments such as CVS, T.J.Maxx and Staples, as well as at schools, warehouses, libraries, supermarkets, offices and local businesses. It’s boosting their skill sets and self-esteem.
“Yachad’s mission is Inclusion,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, director of Yachad/NJCD, the OU’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities. “A job is the ultimate sense of belonging; it gives them a sense of purpose. And to this population, it’s so much more than a paycheck.”
Just ask Talia, twenty-eight, a Yachad member who works at T.J.Maxx in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
“I love it here,” she says. “I organize the clothing according to size and make things neat. They are very happy with my work. They say that I’m awesome. If I didn’t have the job, I’d be lonely.”
Or ask Avi, who works at a CVS drug store in Brooklyn Heights.
“I come to work, put on my uniform and then speak to the manager to see what aisle to work on,” he says. “It gets me out of the house. I feel like I’m moving on in my life.”
Almost 70 percent of the adult special needs population in the United States is either unemployed or underemployed. “What a waste of a valuable resource—and people with disabilities are a resource,” says Dr. Lichtman. “We are a stronger, richer community if we allow ourselves to benefit from the many ways in which they can contribute.”
For close to three decades, Yachad/NJCD has been promoting the Inclusion of Jews with disabilities into every dimension of Jewish life. Yachad has fifty-five chapters across the country that provide a full array of services such as family Shabbatonim attracting hundreds of participants, summer camps, Taglit-Birthright programs to Israel and clinical services.
Yachad’s Vocational Training Program caters to each client’s interests and abilities while taking his or her personal challenges into account. Currently, many of its members are interns, volunteers or paid employees.
“Yachad’s vocational program does not serve as a typical employment agency,” says Jack Gourdji, executive director of the Jewish Union Foundation, an agency that is closely affiliated with Yachad. “Typical agencies will place people, whether it’s the right fit or not. Yachad will make sure you’re the best person for the job, and vice versa.”
Speaking of one young man with autism and ADHD, Gourdji says, “He can’t sit still. Yachad got him a job as a delivery person for one of the kosher restaurants in midtown Manhattan. It was a perfect fit. Just because an individual has developmental disabilities doesn’t mean he lacks talents. Yachad evaluates each individual and tries to best utilize his talents.”
Putting It All into Practice
Yachad’s job candidates learn the social and professional mores that many of us take for granted, such as how to appropriately interact with one’s boss and colleagues, dress for work, come on time and be accountable. “[People with developmental disabilities] struggle with the idea that what they do really matters,” says Shula Einhorn, Yachad’s vocational services coordinator. “We stress that someone is relying on them and if they didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.”
Clients also receive “travel training,” which includes learning how to buy a metro card and successfully navigate public transportation. Yachad also works with clients on interviewing skills and on improving posture and eye contact.
Once “job-ready,” clients are assisted with creating a resume and finding an appropriate job. A job coach accompanies the new employee during the initial weeks at the worksite, guiding him or her throughout the day. “For some, the idea of working seems daunting and out of reach,” says Einhorn. “The coaches guide them toward specific goals until they come to see they can accomplish the required tasks on their own.” Yachad’s vocational staff maintains contact with the employees and the worksites’ managers. “If an individual starts to show up late to work, we are informed and work with him on it,” she says.
Often, members start out as volunteers or interns, applying the skills they learned in an actual work setting. “The goal is to build on their experience,” says Yael Schochat, job developer for the Jewish Union Foundation. “They’ll have something to add to their resumes, helping companies look past their disabilities and hopefully hire them based on their qualifications and abilities.”
Schochat frequently hits the pavement pursuing employment possibilities. “I’ll randomly walk into an establishment,” says Schochat. “I ask if they need any help sweeping, organizing shelves, stocking. Then I explain Yachad’s vocational program and how our members can be an asset to their company.”
In an effort to spread the employment net wider, Yachad held two job fairs in Manhattan this past year for individuals with special needs. Almost five hundred job seekers and sixteen employers—including the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Lowe’s Home Improvement and the New York City Coalition Against Hunger—attended the first fair, held in March. Thirty-eight people got jobs as a result of the fair. The second job fair, in August, drew approximately four hundred job seekers and twenty employers.
Eli, a twenty-one-year-old job seeker at the fairs, attends Yachad’s job-readiness training and interns at Bravo Kosher Pizza in downtown Manhattan. He’s now interested in finding a job-for-pay in maintenance. His mother, Ruth, attributes his progress to Yachad. “They really do their homework,” she says. “Eli has high-functioning autism and global delays. Yachad put a lot of time and effort into learning what motivates him, what makes him happy and ways they could help him with his struggles in the social arena.” To her delight and relief, none of the behavioral issues she anticipated came to fruition when he started interning. “He felt great, like he was the man on campus,” she says. “He loves to work; he feels useful and capable.”
Yachad Goes Entrepreneurial
Dr. Lichtman saw the need for more opportunities—so he’s creating them. Yachad recently launched a for-profit online business selling gift baskets with Yachad members manning the phones. (To place an order, please visit yachadgifts.com or call the toll-free number: 855.505.7500.) Currently, the business operates out of the OU headquarters in downtown Manhattan, but Yachad would like to open up distribution sites at Yachad chapters across the States.
Apparently, Yachad’s Vocational Services Department is appreciated by employers as well. “My Yachad employees are so dedicated,” says David Abrams, the owner of Bravo Kosher Pizza. “They’re happy to work and they put their heart into everything. They come on time and rarely call in sick. It brings them such happiness. We gave one of the workers a hat and a shirt that says ‘Bravo.’ He came into my office with tears in his eyes.”
Eddie Akilov, a CVS store manager in Brooklyn, finds helping the community is also good for business. “A lot of customers make it a point to thank me; they tell me, ‘nice job!’” He recently hired one of his Yachad interns.
“If you get one person a job, you’ve opened up a world for him,” says Dr. Lichtman.
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.