The wiry, earnest-looking, informally dressed man, somewhere in what seemed to be late middle age, stopped us as we walked across Prospect Street in South Orange, heading from JESPY House’s main office to Judi House — that’s the Judith Ruback Schechner Recreation and Wellness Center, if you’re being formal — on Irvington Avenue.
He’s a JESPY House client, and recognized my companion, the nonprofit organization’s communications director, Sonya Kimble-Ellis. Unprompted, he started to talk about JESPY House, with enthusiasm. In fact, with clear love.
He’s been with JESPY for more than 20 years, he said, and he’s flourished during those years.
“Where would we be without JESPY House?” he asked. “Where would we be?”
In its 45 years, JESPY House has grown from a small institution for “Jewish Special Youth” — that’s where its not-quite-acronym name came from — founded by four families to a network of day programs, residential programs that provide safety and guidance and nurture independence, sports and athletics programs that keep clients’ bodies healthy, and work programs that help clients follow their interests, learn skills, and get employment, all with support and realistic encouragement. The element that all these disparate programs have in common is careful listening; clients know what their goals and dreams are, JESPY House’s staff listens to them.
And so the clients, all adults with learning and developmental disabilities, are helped as they pursue their dreams, and often they go on to advocate articulately and skillfully for themselves and for others like them.
JESPY House’s network now includes buildings mainly within walking distance in downtown South Orange; its plans to expand are fueled by a $13.25 million matching gift from philanthropists Toby and Leon Cooperman of Short Hills.
“We have grown exponentially, and the quality of our services has strengthened every single year,” its executive director, Audrey Winkler, said. Given that growth — and given the need for its services, which is growing at least as quickly — it has inaugurated its Go Big for JESPY! initiative, “which will expand residential opportunities for adults, for older adults to age in place, and will provide affordably priced housing.
“All three of those needs are urgent for our clients,” who range in age from 18 to “our oldest client, who just celebrated his 74th birthday,” Ms. Winkler said.
“More than 100 of our clients live in the community, in independent apartments or with their families, and come here for a variety of different programs.” They’re backed by case managers and a range of other support systems. JESPY employs about 100 staffers, whom the organization calls direct support professionals. Some but not all of them are social workers.
“Clients come from all over the country — we have a client from Oregon now, and one from California,” Ms. Winkler said. “They come because of how we help our clients gain independence and live fulfilling lives.
“We are client-centered,” she said. “Our clients have goals and ambitions, and we listen to them.”
Two clients, Debra D. and Ny-Sheer C., joined us to talk a bit about themselves. They’re a contrast — Debra is white, Jewish, middle-aged, and self-confident; Ny-Sheer is Black, young, and less comfortable talking about himself. Both feel they’ve benefitted hugely from JESPY House.
Ny-Sheer’s goal is to get a job, and to become independent enough to leave his family home. “I want to work in retail,” he said.
“We have a much-expanded job-readiness program,” Ms. Winkler said. More than 150 clients are learning job skills, and “then we find them jobs, and coach and support them.
“We work with a lot of local businesses, mainly in South Orange and Maplewood, and we also train our clients about how to travel to their jobs. We have clients working in three counties.”
JESPY House matches clients and jobs carefully. “We make the right match,” Ms. Winkler said. “It’s not one and done. Ny-Sheer will try retail first, and if he realizes that it’s not for him we will try another sector. We have clients working in maybe two dozen different kinds of jobs.”
“I like office work,” Debra said. She works on computers and she organizes information. “In the vocational department, I made up some binders that have information about things like how to dress for a job. Another binder might have information about how to interact with your coworkers, and another one might be about job leads.”
Debra is an artist; she’s made personalized greeting cards, and now she’s starting to draw, she said. She is very specific about what she makes; “I love midcentury modern furniture and housewares,” she said, and those designs influence her own art.
Debra and Ny-Sheer had not known each other before this meeting, but when Ny-Sheer said that he, like Debra, is an artist — “my true goal is to be a graphic designer,” he said — Debra said, “Wow. Come join the club of artists!” and she offered him some tips about how to start meeting JESPY’s art community, and how to exhibit his work.
JESPY House works because South Orange is a walkable community. “We have 12 buildings, mostly within walking distance,” Ms. Winker said. “That’s a wonderful part about our program. When we teach independence and we go to the bank, we walk there.
“We got an Inclusive Healthy Communities grant” — it’s funded by the state’s division of disability services, part of the department of human services — “and we got one of our clients on a municipal committee,” she continued.
“We contribute over $3.5 million dollars to South Orange every year — by going out to lunch and going to Starbucks and renting space in buildings by dozens and dozens of clients. That is a real contribution to the town.
“We need and deserve a seat at the table. Until now, our clients had only been talked about; they need a voice. Now, we hope that more and more of our clients will be able to represent the disability community.”
Still, there continue to be needs.
“Rents in South Orange have skyrocketed, and our clients’ salaries cannot keep up,” Ms. Winkler said. She returned to the Coopermans’ gift. Go Big for JESPY’s overall goal is $26.5 million, and the huge donation – the biggest in the nonprofit’s history — “will help us add residential opportunities for our clients and expand programs and services.” It’s a matching fund, and “as a result of our announcing it, we already have piqued interest from many donors who are beginning to unlock that match,” she said.
JESPY began as a Jewish institution — it’s independent but receives some funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest; most of its support comes from the government, foundations, including MetroWest, individual donors, and earned income — and although it’s now strikingly and marvelously multicultural, it’s also got Jewish values at its heart. “We uphold traditional Jewish values,” Amy Engel, its director of development, marketing, and community relations, said. JESPY celebrates Jewish holidays, holds model seders, encourages anyone who is interested to light Shabbat candles, and makes its Jewish DNA clear. Its doorposts hold mezzuzot.
Rabia El-Hamyani is the daily living skills lead at one of JESPY’s houses, Independence House. It’s an immaculately clean, lovingly restored probably century-or-so old building with a big, modern, non-institutional kitchen. The house fits perfectly in its residential South Orange neighborhood. (As well it should — it’s a house, and a real home.)
JESPY clients usually live in group apartments elsewhere in South Orange, in the building called the Residence, and move to houses like this one for shared housing. Clients have their own bedrooms; they share the downstairs living areas, and they cook for each other, in a preset rotation.
“The clients live like a family here,” Ms. El-Hamyani said. “They do a lot together collectively, but their private lives are their private lives. Like a family.” Some of the house’s residents have jobs, others spend time in the day program.
Ms. El-Hamyani is an observant Muslim, from Morocco, although she can trace part of her family back to the Jews who were expelled from Spain, she said. Her clients come from disparate backgrounds, and they learn from each other. One way that sharing becomes clear is through food, she said. “We talk about what to cook, and we have a lot of Italian food, Indian food — one of the staff members is Indian — and Moroccan food. Even the food is multicultural!”
She first began to work at JESPY in 2019, after a long career as a private-school teacher, Ms. El-Hamyani said; she was at the Michael Och House, where clients can age in place, when the pandemic hit. She worked heroically; in 2020, that work was recognized with the New Jersey Association of Community Providers Heroes Recognition award.
She loves to see her clients progress. “Every day, I see clients working toward their goal — to be independent,” she said. “To be self-medicated. To overcome their fears and anxiety. To reach their goals.”
One client who lives in Independence House “is trying to get married,” she said. “And we are helping him. She’s our client too; they met at the day program, and now they have dreams and goals — to find good jobs, to live together. To get married!
“I love the smiles I see,” she added. “I love the happiness. I love being able to help change people’s lives.”
Michelle Rampersant-Faulk is JESPY’s manager of residential services. Her office is in the Michael Och House, a big, inviting, nine-bedroom house in South Orange. The house is for clients who are at least 50 years old; it opened in 2019, just before covid shut everything but the house down.
Debra D., the JESPY client who talked about being an artist, also explained why the Michael Och House sounds so appealing.
She still lives independently, she said, “but looking to the future, I want to move there. I don’t want to live anyplace but here, in South Orange, but I see that as I grow older, I will need more help.” She told the story of a woman who lived in her building — not a JESPY client, she and everyone else said emphatically — “who had cooked something and forgot to the turn the stove off. Eventually the state had to remove her. I do not want to be that person.”
“The Michael Och House is one of the few aging-in-place homes in New Jersey specifically for older adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Ms. Winkler said. “And we see age-related challenges decades earlier in our clients than we do in neurotypical people. We see in 45-, 50-, 60-year-olds what you’d see in people in their 70s, 80s, or 90s.”
Ms. Rampersant-Faulk said that the reason JESPY works as it does is because of the culture. “Their dedication is unmatched,” she said. “Unmatched.”
She’s been with JESPY for 14 years, she continued. She’s not a social worker; “I went to school for sociology, not social work,” she said. “But I have been here for so long that I have a pretty good idea of the type of person it takes to work in this environment. It takes folks who don’t have just the love and the desire to do good, but also the ability to provide a service to our clients. To understand that some of the clients have challenges.” In other words, while idealism is necessary, it is not sufficient. Patience, adaptability, and understanding matter too.
The clients at Michael Och House have a set of challenges that their younger peers do not. If their parents still are alive, they’re likely to be aging, and eventually to face the indignities that come with it. They probably will decline, some might confront dementia, and eventually they’ll die. “We also, as staff and professionals here at the agency, assist our clients in navigating that,” Ms. Rampersant-Faulk said. “Our clinical department is amazing; they can do grief counseling or if necessary refer clients to outside providers.
“It’s really a balancing act, to help our clients understand and deal with it, and we navigate it as we need to. In life, we all confront things. We are all human. We all have lives. Just because our clients live here at JESPY, it doesn’t mean that they are exempt from the rest of life.”
Under Ms. Winkler’s leadership, JESPY is serious about inclusivity, Ms. Rampersant-Faulk, who is Black, said. “Audrey is adamant about providing services to everyone, and that we practice what we preach. There is no one we can’t serve. None of this has anything to do with your race or religion.
“We are very close to Newark and Irvington, and our goal – and Audrey’s goal — is to make sure that those folks there who don’t have the information about getting these services are able to access it.
“We want to accommodate. We want to continue to be the answer to the needs of the community, of the families who have loved ones who can use our services, no matter what area of the agency it’s in.
“Once you come here and have a taste of it, of JESPY — and being here so long I have a good taste of it — after you’ve gone through your child’s life and dealt with all of the issues of having a child with a disability, all the problems, all the programs, all the paperwork — and you come here and see this place, you think, ‘Ohmygod, where have you been?’”
Once they’ve found JESPY — through the day program, or the vocational department, or one of the many services it offers — “families are like, ‘I can have my life back! I can breathe.’
“JESPY really is the answer to the questions and difficulties that families have when they have someone who has a disability,” Ms. Rampersant-Faulk said.
Learn more about JESPY at jespyhouse.org; information about the Cooperman challenge and Go Big for JESPY is at jespyhouse.org/GoBig