JFS employment program finds jobs, builds confidence

JFS employment program finds jobs, builds confidence

Roberta and Gregory Woldow at the A.C.E. graduation on June 29.

Until Gregory Woldow enrolled in the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson Achieve Career Excellence program, “he had a really hard time finding jobs,” said his mother, Roberta Woldow of Englewood Cliffs.

“The A.C.E. program is the best thing we ever did,” she added, noting that while Gregory actually found his current job through the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, it was A.C.E. that set him on the right path.

“They gave him vocational tests and said he should be in a job working with and helping people,” said Woldow, adding that the JFS program also “gave Gregory support services and confidence in himself. It was a very good experience, a wonderful program.”

Now, she said, her son is an activities assistant for ARC, a Bergen County group that works with individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.

“He loves his work,” she said. “It’s just the right thing for him.”

According to Julye Brown, JFS director of operations, the A.C.E. program – started in January with funding from the N.J. Division of Developmental Disabilities – was created to “help young adults with Asperger’s syndrome reach their highest level of professional achievement.”

Marlene Lechner, JFS’ career development specialist, pointed out that “a lot of individuals with that diagnosis are highly capable of holding jobs but have a hard time getting them because they have challenges with social skills.”

The goal of A.C.E., she said, is to enable them to secure and maintain employment “to match their real abilities. Many of them are underemployed.”

Brown said the agency had been talking for several years about starting the program, which graduated its first five students on June 29. Three of them have already found jobs, and “we’ll find jobs for the others,” said Brown.

“Gregory’s job was a perfect match,” said Lechner, adding that the other two students found jobs as paid interns at Bergen Community College.

Ranging in age from 24 to the mid-40s, A.C.E. students received extensive training in communications skills and interviewing techniques.

“They need a lot of rehearsal,” said Lechner, noting that the program draws heavily on the resources available from the JFS Vocational Services department. In addition to standard teaching sessions, “we also incorporated some improvisational acting skills to help them become more enthusiastic,” she said. “They learned to express themselves in new ways.”

The 16-week program also included job search workshops, individual counseling, one-on-one job coaching, and use of the agency’s computer lab to work on résumés. Support groups were offered to parents every other week.

Brown called the initiative “both unique and intensive,” adding, “I don’t think there’s a program like it anywhere in the nation.”

“It’s brand-new,” said Lechner, adding that she has received queries about the program from all over the country. “People are willing to travel here,” she said.

Lechner said the program has also benefited from the “synergy” between herself and Sheila Steinbach, a trained clinician and social skills expert, who works with the students.

She noted that at the end of the program, students receive after-care and post-placement assistance, including onsite support, job coaching, and trouble-shooting. To help with this effort, she said, the agency needs additional volunteers to act as job coaches and shadows at students’ workplaces.

Brown pointed out that the funding for the program was for this year only, and the group is seeking grants from foundations to supplement the fees paid by families. An open house for the next session will be held on Sept. 13, and the next class is scheduled to begin in early October. Ideally, said Brown, the group would contain eight to 10 students.

“We’ve had extremely positive feedback,” she said. “Each student developed in his own way” and students feel more confident about themselves. “Parents are also pleased about the growth of their children,” she said.

To learn more about the A.C.E. program, call JFS at (201) 837-9090.

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