Dawn Oppenheimer has been a client of JESPY for 19 years.
JESPY was formed 42 years ago to help adults with mild developmental disabilities live independent lives. Its name once was an acronym, but the agency has changed so that the original words no longer apply. The J stood for Jewish; while JESPY still is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, the agency now is non-sectarian. The Y stood for youth — the organization was formed to meet the needs of developmentally disabled young adults who had aged out of school settings — but four decades later, the early cohorts are no longer young.
It helps clients hold jobs, provides them with opportunities to socializing and learn, and generally gets them the help they need to remain independent.
Based in South Orange, JESPY serves 260 clients. Roughly 40 of them live in shared JESPY housing, 140 or so live in independent apartments, and another 80 live with their families and come to JESPY for programs.
Ms. Oppenheimer lives with four other clients in a shared house in South Orange. She was working — until covid.
“I used to work in a day care center in Livingston with 3- and 4-year-olds,” she said. “I was a teacher’s assistant. I helped the teacher prepare lunches. I washed the tables and swept the floor.”
It was a part time job. With covid, “they were only hiring full time people to clean and disinfect,” she said.
Helping JESPY’s clients find work is a major task that the organization undertakes.
“They’re all considered employable,” Susan Weinstock on Montville said. She and Judy Peskin of Summit co-chair the fundraising committee on JESPY’s board. (JESPY’s annual fundraising gala is scheduled November 12 and will be online. See the box for details).
“JESPY works on helping people develop the skills they need to work,” Ms. Weinstock said. “Some clients who haven’t gotten jobs yet may do volunteer work to prepare them for securing a job. They often have job coaches, who sometimes go on site to assist them in transitioning into that job.”
Now, though, JESPY has been assisting clients with filling out unemployment claims.
“Many were downsized. Many were furloughed,” Audrey Winkler, JESPY’s executive director, said. “Because we’re seeing so many unemployed in New Jersey, our clients are being pushed to the back of the line. I’m seeing positions where typically our clients would be a perfect fit but now there are college grads in those positions.”
For those JESPY clients who still are working, JESPY is in contact with the employers. “Some of our clients are able to work remotely. Some are still on site and it’s a matter of keeping them safe.”
But the vocational help is only part of what JESPY provides. “Our programs touch every area of our clients’ lives,” Ms. Winkler said. It offers programs in daily living skills training and social wellness and fitness and recreation and culture.
In the spring, “we retooled all of our programs to provide a virtual environment,” she continued. “We’re able to keep our community together. We had a lot of challenges keeping our clients focused and interactive. We provide over a hundred activities each week, from meditation and yoga to arts to Zumba to skill groups like relationships and money to puzzle and trivia groups.” Even the pet therapy has gone online, with Rosie the dog appearing on Zoom.
“Personally, I like the real groups better than the virtual,” Ms. Oppenheimer said. “Virtually you don’t get to see everybody. You get to interact more when you see everybody. I’m very lucky I live with other people. At least I get to interact and socialize.”
What are her favorite online groups?
“I like to draw and color,” she said. “I like to do word searches. I like to do puzzles.”
Going virtual was hard on the clients, and on the JESPY staff who had to retool rapidly, but it also devastated the organization’s budget. Government funding based on in-person contact didn’t flow to the virtual activities. The organization held a special fundraiser in the spring to make up the gap.
The November 12 virtual gala is “our usual annual fundraiser,” Ms. Weinstock said. The online program has been designed with the understanding that “everyone has gotten a bit tired of sitting in front of a computer. It’s upbeat and interactive. It will grab and hold the attention of our audience.”
“The focus is really on the clients,” Ms. Winkler said. “What JESPY means for them, what their successes have been while they’ve been at our programs. We have some wonderful videos families have sent in describing what JESPY means for their families.”
Save the date
What: Virtual gala and silent auction in support of JESPY
When: Thursday, November 12, 7 p.m.