New Store Provides Job Training and Meaningful Employment to Individuals with Disabilities
Brandon Levine, a Yachad Gifts trainee, stands before a table lined with a dozen wicker baskets. Four floors below him, Coney Island Avenue’s cacophony of honking horns provides an apt accompaniment to busy hands. Brandon sticks a glue dot on the back of a shining gold coffee packet, then attaches the packet to a cookie box, which sits among other treats he already placed in the basket. The glue will keep the carefully arranged bouquet of items intact for their trip to an upcoming Shabbaton, simcha or any other celebratory occasion.
“I enjoy this work,” says Brandon, 24. “I’m gaining skills. I’m an adult and this gives me practice. Practice makes perfect!”
For Brandon, who has a developmental disability, jobs are hard to come by. Although he currently volunteers at Parkville Food Center in Brooklyn, he has never had a paid job.
According to the United States Department of Labor, across all age groups, persons with a disability were much less likely to be employed than those without a disability. Its statistics indicate that 20% of Americans have a disability and nearly 70% of them are unemployed, and a third of those who are only have part-time work.
“For all the gains Yachad has made in educating the community to the fact that everyone needs and deserves to feel they belong, when it comes to employment we, as a community and society, have made little progress,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, international director of Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s flagship program of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities. “People would sooner write a check rather than give individuals a chance at a job in their stores or corporations. No matter how successful we’ve been, we are not keeping pace with the need.”
Taking matters into their own hands, Yachad launched Yachad Gifts in 2013. The premise was simple: artisanal gift baskets put together by individuals with disabilities. Most of the workers are part of the Yachad vocational program. Once a week, members from a Brooklyn-based special needs agency also come to volunteer.
To drum up interest in Yachad’s unique service, Stuart Gourdji, manager of YachadGifts.com, took advantage of the OU’s worldwide synagogue partnerships and contacted every shul on the OU synagogue database, advertising the project. As sales continued to increase, Yachad Gifts outgrew its cramped office on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn and moved to a more spacious one just a few buildings down, affording them ample room to produce, store and showcase, as well as sell their wares.
Creating Jobs – Building People
“YachadGifts.com is the perfect way for us to accomplish multiple goals,” explains Allen Fagin, the OU’s executive vice president and chief professional officer. “First, it provides meaningful jobs and vocational training to a number of our Yachad participants. Second, it provides everyone with a wonderful opportunity to support Yachad’s activities and its overarching goal of successful Inclusion. And finally, it is a wonderful way to celebrate a simcha.”
To date Yachad Gifts has sold approximately 7,000 baskets. As the enterprise grows, so too does its hiring potential, allowing more individuals with disabilities the chance for employment. Opening its doors in August of 2013 with two paid workers and little more than a handful of volunteers, Yachad Gifts currently boasts a staff of nine paid workers, four of whom are Yachad members, and 20 volunteers with disabilities.
Each workday, Suri Baum, the YachadGifts.com job coach, demonstrates what needs to be done with a particular basket order and helps each worker get started, assisting when necessary. “It’s a good feeling to teach them something new,” she says. “I can see a change in their skill level. They get to a point where they can independently make the packages.”
Yachad Gifts offers Yachad members the opportunity to develop skills that can be transitioned into other work environments. They participate in every step of production – taking phone orders, shopping for the baskets, filling them, taking inventory, restocking shelves and keeping the store clean. Talia Forman, one of the Yachad workers, manages an internal photography booth: she places a gift basket in the proper area and takes photos to be displayed online and in promotional material. Moishe Hammer, a strapping YachadGifts.com employee, regularly delivers gift baskets to the homes of customers who live in the New York City area. Every growing venture needs an enthusiastic salesman and Chaim Goldman, together with a Yachad Gifts staff member, travels to boutiques and kosher supermarkets, encouraging them to display the Yachad-manufactured products.
Dr. Lichtman explains that having a job is a psychological necessity. “If a person, no matter his or her disability, is not contributing, it creates a sense of frustration and undermines self-esteem,” he says.
Goldman, who also hones his natural marketing savvy selling Yachad Gift Baskets at a stand in front of the Empire Kosher store in Crown Heights, concurs. “If I didn’t have a job, I’d be stressed out. I enjoy meeting new people, talking with the customers. I’m positive and polite; I say, ‘excuse me; would you like to take a look at the gift baskets?’ I tell them to come see the retail store. They hired me because I’m the best salesman.”
When a young adult with disabilities feels that he or she plays a vital part in the working world, it also creates a positive ripple effect on the family.
“Chaim has a job and he earns a salary,“ says Goldman’s mother. “It gives him a sense of normalcy in the otherwise challenged world in which he lives.”
“We are a stronger, richer community if we allow ourselves to benefit from the many ways in which people with special needs can contribute,” says Dr. Lichtman. “If we don’t, it’s a waste of a valuable resource. And people with disabilities are a resource. We have to open opportunities for them, even if that means creating opportunities.”
To place an order, please visit YachadGifts.com or call the toll-free number: 855.505.7500. You can also visit Yachad Gifts retail store at 1090 Coney Island Avenue (4th Floor) Brooklyn, NY, 11230. (between Avenues H and Foster) The store hours are Monday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 5p.m. and Fridays 9a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
To find out what it’s like working for Yachad, read this first-hand account from Joel Daner Yachad Communal Fellow Stephanie Weprin.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.