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Developmentally Disabled Employees Shine In The Workplace

By: Sandy Eller

Published in Jewish Press’s Building Blocks Magazine, March 2014

Ask any employer what qualities they look for in a prospective hire, and no matter what line of work they are in, many of the answers will be the same. Dedication. Responsibility. Loyalty. A good work ethic. Someone who is highly motivated. While some business owners lament the dearth of candidates who possess all those qualities, there are those who suggest that there is a large pool of talented individuals who are eager to join the workforce: adults with developmental disabilities.
“We have placed people in all kinds of situations,” Perela Mayer, intake coordinator at Creative Business Resources (CBR), a division of the Brooklyn based Women’s League Community Residences, told The Jewish Press. From corporate to computers, from maintenance to deliveries, her people have done it all, according to Mrs. Mayer. As with any employee, finding a good fit is crucial. “We had one individual who worked for many years at a law firm while another who started in a corporate place that was okay for a while but we found that over time it just wasn’t working out,” said Mrs. Mayer.
“Eventually, he started working somewhere doing deliveries and whereas at the corporate job he was falling asleep, here he is coming out of his shell and thriving.” The key to a positive situation in hiring developmentally disabled adults is a mutually beneficial relationship. “If someone is hired only as a chesed, then over time the employer becomes resentful,” postulated Mrs. Mayer.
“This arrangement works best when an employer really has a need that can be filled. When it is a fifty-fifty relationship and it is a good shidduch, then everyone is happy.” One of CBR’s most memorable hires was a young woman who was hired by the Warner Brothers flagship store in Midtown Manhattan. “The store’s uniform was black jeans and a black shirt, and Sarah was hired as a greeter,” recalled Mrs. Mayer. “She asked for her shirt in a larger size so that it would cover her elbows and she explained that she couldn’t wear pants for religious reasons. Her bosses called all the way up to Los Angeles to get permission from corporate and they agreed to let her wear a black jean skirt. People loved Sarah and I saw with my own eyes that people who connected with her almost always bought something in the store.”
The trend of hiring from within the developmentally disabled community seems to be gathering steam, with Forbes Magazine reporting that Allegis Group, the largest staffing firm in the United States, is making a deal to acquire Getting- Hired.com, a job board serving the developmentally disabled community in December 2012. “We believe people with disabilities have been an underserved part of the job-seeking community. There are many talented individuals looking for employment and many companies looking for a good fit for their organizations,” said Michael McSally, vice president of enterprise operations at Allegis.
Tzvi Styler is one of the many developmentally disabled adults who have joined the workforce through the employment program at OHEL Bais Ezra. An employee at Boro Park Lumber, Tzvi takes the train to work from his Lower East Side home every day. In the almost yearlong period that Tzvi has been on the job, he has successfully increased both the number of days and the numbers of hours he puts in at work. “Tzvi understands a lot and he helps us out,” explained Yoeli Rosenberg of Boro Park Lumber. “He is very, very nice and usually puts in a three- or four-hour day. He is a helping hand and it is working out well.” The value of being employed goes beyond getting a paycheck for Tzvi, according to Matvey Khaimov, manager of OHEL Bais Ezra’s employment program. “Tzvi is a driven individual who loves what he does and the structure of his everyday job,” reported Khaimov. “He lit up when we suggested this job to him because working is so meaningful to him. He loves being a part of the conversation when he talks to his family and people are discussing their jobs. He has a phenomenal work ethic and takes pride in what he does. Once he starts a task, he won’t leave in the middle, even if his time is up.” Understanding the realities of working with the developmentally disabled is essential. “Employers have to understand that our people will need some help and patience but they have so much to offer,” said Khaimov. “The last thing anyone wants to do is infantilize them or treat them as if they are not capable. Everyone deserves the opportunity to have a job.” “I love going to work,” said Tzvi, who reported that he prices screws, light bulbs and chemicals and stocks hardware. OHEL Bais Ezra currently has over fifty people placed in jobs, according to Suri Greenberg, an area coordinator at Bais Ezra who noted that, for Tzvi, the benefits of meaningful employment are obvious. “Boro Park Lumber has really seen Tzvi’s strengths and given him work opportunities that focus on those strengths. This isn’t just a chesed, he has really been incorporated into the workforce and his whole life has changed. He is so happy and is more communicative. This has made such a difference in his life.”
Ann Cohen, 56, lives in a Women’s League residence in Kensington and has been working at Aura Lighting in Boro Park for over 12 years, a job that was arranged by CBR. “I do the copying machine, filing, and shredding and I go to the other office to do paperwork,” reported Ann. “When I am late, I call the office to tell them I am late.” Ann describes her co-workers as “very, very nice and very patient,” and says that getting her paycheck is extremely rewarding. “I eat out once in a while, buy my own makeup, jewelry and perfume, and pay for my own trips,” said Ann, who plans to buy two new outfits for Pesach. Ann’s boss, Heshy Kasirer, describes her “as a breath of fresh air.” “As much as it is a mitzvah to employ her, we at Aura gain chizuk from her every day,” said Kasirer, who noted that Ann gleaned much of her knowledge of Orthodox Judaism from the Internet and that she is in the process of learning both Yiddish and Hebrew and frequently tries to help others increase their level of religious observance. Kasirer also had warm words for Ann’s work ethic, noting, “She comes to work and doesn’t miss a day, and if she takes off she always gives me notice.” Ann is extremely grateful to CBR for its services. “The highest form of charity is to give someone a job, according to the Rambam,” said Ann, who spends approximately 45 minutes to an hour each way on her twobus commute to work. Ann’s coach, Sarah Goldman, praised Ann’s devotion to her job and noted how working at Aura has added a measure of satisfaction and productivity to Ann’s life. “Everyone wants to get up in the morning, have a job and feel good about themselves,” said Mrs. Goldman, who also explained that the role of a work coach is to prepare developmentally disabled individuals for their job. “We help them out for two weeks and get them ready. If we need to travel-train them, we will do that too, taking the bus with them and teaching them everything they need to know about using public transportation.
Once they are good on their own, we check on them twice a month to see how they are doing, help them with new tasks and see how they are doing on their own.” At YACHAD/Jewish Union Foundation (JUF), the vocational services team teaches a wide array of skills to its members in an effort to help them succeed as employees, including work readiness, on-thejob and social-skills training, and offering both job placement and on-the- job support services. The JUF places members in a variety of fields, including schools, warehouses, restaurants, libraries, supermarkets, nursing homes and soup kitchens, and has partnered with both local businesses and agencies as well as big-name operations like CVS, T.J. Maxx and Staples. According to Yael Schochat, a job developer at the JUF, most of its members are currently occupied in meaningful pursuits, including volunteer experiences, internships and work opportunities.
“Almost all of our clients are involved in some sort of work experience,” said Ms. Schochat. Devorah Lieberman, 29, was placed at the Foundation for Jewish Camp by the JUF. In addition to clerical duties, Devorah’s responsibilities include organizing the kitchen and the supply closet. Asked about her job, Devorah responded, “I love it!” Devorah enjoys spending time with her co-workers and, like anyone else, finds that nothing is as rewarding as receiving a paycheck with her name on it. “We are thrilled and excited to have Devorah working at the Foundation for Jewish Camp,” said Abby Knopp, vice president, Program and Strategy at Foundation for Jewish Camp. “She has quickly become an asset to our organization and a part of our family. We look forward to a bright future with Devorah as a colleague, and enabling more young Jews to experience the power of Jewish camp.” Suri Englard, day services coordinator at HASC Center, estimates her office currently has 50 consumers in the workforce, including Bracha*, who works at Canarsie’s Metro Center*. “I love it here,” enthused Bracha, whose official nameplate bears her current title, director of scanning services. “I do a lot of things: I lead meetings, I give out paychecks, and I scan delivery tickets.”
Bracha’s boss, Isaac, fondly refers to Bracha, a nine-year employee who works 20-25 hours a week, as his “right-hand woman.” He considers her to be more than just a valued employee staff member. “Bracha isn’t just a good employee, she is family,” observed Isaac. “She knows my family, my kids. I just made a bar mitzvah and Bracha was there. There are 35 people in this company who care about her every day. If she ever doesn’t come for whatever reason, they come running up to me to make sure she is okay.” While Bracha takes a bus to work every day from her supportive apartment in Flatbush, fellow employees always make sure that in case of inclement weather, someone picks Bracha up and brings her to work.
“Bracha started out at a much lower level but she has moved up as she has learned more and more,” added Mrs. Englard. “Bracha has earned everyone’s respect because she is a good employee. She is bright, willing to learn, and [is an] independent person.” Bracha brown-bags her lunch, typically spending her midday break with friends who work nearby. “I cook the night before,” said the soon-to-be 34-year-old Bracha. “I cook healthy things.” According to Mrs. Englard, Bracha recently took on a commitment to a more healthful lifestyle and has lost a significant amount of weight. In addition to preparing her own meals, Bracha has been exercising on a regular basis at a local women’s health club. While it took some time to find the right employment opportunity for Bracha, once she hired on at Metro Center it became obvious that it was a match made in heaven. “We had Bracha at other jobs but we always knew she was destined for more,” said Bracha’s coach, Yisroel. “She has risen through the ranks and every few years they promote her again.” Yisroel recalls asking Bracha at one point if he could speak to her supervisor. “She looked at me and said, ‘I am the supervisor!’ ” Yisroel said.
*Names have been changed for reasons of privacy.

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