It quickly became clear that Annette knows more about wigs than most of the rest of us ever will.
Annette has worked for four years with Lillian Lee, helping the Teaneck salon owner recondition donated wigs for Do Wonders, her charity, which gives wigs to cancer patients. “I wash and style and sort the wigs,” Annette said. And, added Ms. Lee, she’s learning to classify wigs by hair texture.
I spoke with Annette, a Yachad client, last Wednesday, at a conference organized by the New Jersey branch of Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s program for people with developmental disabilities. (To respect their privacy, we are not using Yachad clients’ last names.) The program brought together about 50 clients of Yachad’s vocational services in New Jersey and New York for a day of professional development. The clients heard a panel of three employers, among them Ms. Lee, discuss what employers look for in an employee. They took part in small group discussions about the challenges of holding a job. And they got to mingle with their peers.
“This is one of the few places in the world where I don’t feel inferior,” one participant, Andrew, said. “No one treats me like garbage.”
The conference was held at the Teaneck Jewish Center, where Yachad New Jersey’s offices are housed. It highlighted Yachad New Jersey’s recent expansion into vocational training and job coaching for disabled adults. Yachad New Jersey has run programs for children and their families for a long time. Now, thanks to Yachad New Jersey, Annette is one of nearly two dozen young adults to hold jobs locally.
The move toward vocational services came as the children in Yachad’s programs grew up. According to Chani Herrmann, director of Yachad New Jersey, it was about five years ago that a family that had used Yachad’s services turned to it when they couldn’t find an appropriate vocational setting for their child. The growth has come in part from word of mouth, and from “a core group who have grown up with Yachad as part of their life,” Ms. Herrmann said. New Jersey Yachad now has a dozen job coaches on staff to help the participants develop the skills they need for a job, to help place them in a job, and to be a resource when problems on the job arise.
“You have to be very sensitive,” Eliran Katan, one of the coaches, said. “You have to realize what people can cope with and what they cannot cope with. You have to learn their limits.” But when the proper fit is found, “We know it’s the best person for the job. It’s not chesed,” charity, he said.
“It’s a win-win situation for everybody,” Ms. Lee said.
Bruce Prince, owner of the Teaneck General Store, also spoke at the conference as another satisfied employer. He introduced me to Naftali, who spoke with great enthusiasm about his work at the store.
“I can’t wait to go back,” Naftali said.
He works there two days a week. Most of the New Jersey Yachad clients I spoke with work at two or three different locations, a day or two each. Wednesdays are kept open for group activities.
“Many of our people engage in educational programming related to work life,” Ms. Herrmann said. “We do a lot of social skills training, like reading social cues. We talk about relationships, how they can make more friends, where to meet people. We work on their independent living skills, such as teaching them about cooking safely, with or without an oven. We talk about how to travel safely.” Many but not all of the adult New Jersey Yachad clients live at home with their families.
Yachad also helps prepare people for job interviews and works with them one-on-one to fix up their resumes.
Many Yachad clients work at local Jewish schools, Ms. Herrmann said, including the Gan Rina preschool in Teaneck; the Noam, Ben Porat Yosef, and Frisch schools in Paramus; the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston.
Neenah works at the art room in the Kushner school in Livingston, in the library at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, and in the gift shop at the Jewish Home in Rockleigh. “I do whatever the librarian needs me to do,” she said. “I help label books, do library cards, things like that.”
Chani works at Ben Porat Yosef and at the Jewish Home. She and Neenah work different days. The Wednesday Yachad events give them a chance to talk to each other.
In discussion groups about strengths and weaknesses in the workplace, the conversation turned to a question that concerns all workers, whatever their abilities: How do you stop bringing problems from home into work? The scene at the table reflected the range of abilities. One or two people didn’t pay attention. But one woman offered a wise suggestion: Imagine putting your problems in a box before leaving home.
The process of preparing a Yachad client for a job begins with an initial assessment: Is he or she ready yet for vocational training?
“For those not as ready, we’re expanding to do more therapeutic and life skills program with some opportunities for vocational training,” Ms. Herrmann said. Once a client is ready for vocational training, Yachad pairs him or her with a job coach.
Yachad receives some funding from the New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities, but not all participants are eligible for that funding.
In addition to looking for additional support — Ms. Hermann would love to have a wheelchair accessible van to help transport clients — Yachad is always looking for business owners who might be interested in employing someone who has special needs.
“Often employers go in thinking that they’re doing an act of kindness, which obviously they are by giving someone a chance,” she said. “But often the employer realizes the participant has much to give and the business has much to gain by having them there. What starts out by their giving ends up gaining them much more in return.”