Special needs programs should strive for the ‘high-hanging fruit’

Whenever a group of staffers, volunteers and funders get together in the nonprofit or governmental sectors to create a new social services program, such as anti-poverty, mental health or aging/disability, the conversation will invariably turn to the need to go after the “low-hanging fruit,” a reference to those clients who are easiest to find, assist and succeed.

Unlike in the for-profit sector, where low-hanging fruit refers to a quick, easy sale, the motivation in the nonprofit world isn’t so much money as a desire to show ”wins,” both in the sheer numbers of participants, but also in the “measurable outcomes,” which are now required by most funders. These types of “measurable outcomes” often include tangible progress from a state of some type of dependency to greater independence.

If you start out with people who are already halfway there to financial independence, for example, you will show a much better positive result than if you begin with people who are only one-quarter of the way there. And if you can work with a client who only has one chronic illness or disability, instead of two or three co-existing conditions, well, that simplifies your work and makes success more of an inevitable conclusion.

It’s exactly this type of thinking that leaves behind those most in need.

When it comes to serving those with special needs, many Jewish schools, camps and other Jewish communal programs will, with great fanfare and self-congratulatory speeches, open up a pre-existing program to kids with learning disabilities and/or kids with autism spectrum disorder on the highest level of functioning. Left out are the kids with multiple disabilities or those who are nonverbal or have limited verbal ability. Sometimes those “lower-functioning” kids get included, but only if their parents can figure out how to swing the costs for a private one-to-one aide.

Lisa Szilagyi is the mother of 23-year-old Emily, who has a genetic disease that caused epilepsy and very limited speech, and Szilagyi has set her vision of what can be done for clients with disabilities much higher than most. She switched careers after Emily was born and went back to school to earn a special-education teaching credential, and now teaches at Malibu High School. In the last few years, she realized there weren’t any day job training programs on the Westside for young adults with more severe/multiple disabilities. “Nobody wants to sit around a center somewhere just being warehoused for five to six hours a day,” she said.

In September, she developed a new program for teens and young adults over the age of 18 with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities; it’s called Creative Steps and is vendored by the Westside Regional Center in partnership with Shelly Cox, who is also both a mother of a disabled adult and special-education teacher. Cox is executive director of Step By Step, a comprehensive early learning center for young children of all abilities, which she founded in 1998 in Santa Monica, and she gave Szilagyi the space to launch her program without a big outlay of capital costs.

Creative Steps already has 15 teens/young adults enrolled, many with severe disabilities. They are going on group outings to places such as the 99 Cents Only store, the Santa Monica Pier, and, just recently, an all-day excursion to a local ranch, where some the of participants rode a horse for the first time in their lives. Most of the clients are also part of a life skills class at Santa Monica College, and many participate on Thursday afternoons in Hand in Hand, a program for children and young adults with special needs at Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.

At Hand in Hand, around a dozen children and teens with disabilities participate, along with upward of 30 teenage and adult volunteers for such fun activities as cooking lessons, music and art, as well as doing community service projects together. It has received funding from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Windsong Trust.

Another program setting its sights high for adults is ETTA, a local Orthodox-created Jewish special-needs program that merged last year with OHEL (meaning tent in Hebrew), the largest provider of special services to the Jewish community on the East Coast with 425 adults in residential care. ETTA is the only provider of residential services for Jewish adults with intellectual/developmental disabilities in Los Angeles County. Celebrating its 20th year at an upcoming Dec. 17 gala, ETTA now operates four group homes and is providing case management and specialized support for more independent living arrangements. It also has a new house in the Pico/Robertson neighborhood for higher functioning adult women, some of whom will also receive support services from ETTA. More shared living arrangement than group home, its residents don’t need around–the-clock staff on premises, but will have access to someone whenever needed.

In addition, the Vista Inspire Community Inclusion Program, funded by a three-year Cutting Edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, is partnering with five Jewish communal organizations so that families with children of all abilities can fully participate in and enjoy Jewish communal life. In its inaugural year, a diverse group of Jewish organizations are immersed in a comprehensive inclusion process: the Shalom Institute/JCA Shalom in Malibu, Westside Jewish Community Center, University Synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation and Leo Baeck Temple Early Childhood Center.

Szilagyi has some great suggestions for any organization that wants to pick up that metaphorical ladder and work higher up the “tree”:

• Hire (or bring in pro bono) someone who has the special-education training and expertise to make inclusion work.

• Bring other content experts into the planning process, such as a cantor for music or an art teacher for the crafts project.

• Hire and/or train aides, especially for those who need one-to-one help in order to be part of a program, and build that funding and volunteer support into the program from its very beginning.

• And, most of all, make a priority of a high level “vision and commitment” that inclusion of people of all abilities is a core value of the organization, and the realization that the “typical” volunteers may gain even more than the participants with disabilities.