Special needs resources

Video ‘trailer’ from The Miracle Project
Special-Needs ResourcesHaMercaz, a project of Jewish Family Service and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, offers a central resource for Jewish families raising a special-needs child, connecting parents to support groups, programs and services. Phone (866) 287-8030 or e-mail Hamercaz@jfsla.org.

HaMercaz is a shared project of the following organizations, all of which offer services:

Jewish Family Service, www.jfsla.org.

Bureau of Jewish Education, www.bjela.org.

Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, www.jbbbsla.org.

Jewish Free Loan Association, www.jfla.org.

Jewish Vocational Service, www.jvsla.org.

The Etta Israel Center, www.etta.org.

The New JCC at Milken, www.jccatmilken.org.

Vista Del Mar-Julia Ann Singer School, www.vistadelmar.org.

The Miracle Project Judaica at Vista Del Mar provides bar and bat mitzvah instruction for children with special needs: www.themiracleproject.org

West Coast Chabad’s Friendship Circle Program offers a variety of services for children and their families: www.chabad.com.

Special needs program puts spotlight on the siblings

Barbara Azrialy spent much of her childhood in Cincinnati pretending to be an only child. In fact, she had two brothers, one five years older and the other three years younger. Both brothers were mentally retarded.

“Nobody talked about it back then,” said Azrialy, 62, now a special education teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District. “The worst kind of disability was something to do with the brain. If it was an obvious one like being blind or deaf it would have been more acceptable.”

While attitudes have changed in the intervening years, “It’s still difficult for a sibling to go unscathed,” she said.

HaMercaz hopes to change this. A collaborative project of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Family Service and seven other Jewish community agencies, HaMercaz (which means “the center”) assists families with children up to age 21 who have developmental and learning disabilities such as autism, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or mental retardation.

The two-year-old program serves as a “one-stop-shop” for families, providing guidance, support, education and referrals. Programs include a toll-free warmline; support groups for mothers, fathers and grandparents; and referrals to agencies that can provide assistance, such as interest-free loans or parent respite.

This year, HaMercaz is focusing on the needs of siblings, said Sally Weber, JFS’ director of Jewish community programs and a co-founder of the program.

“The sibling relationship is the longest lifetime relationship,” she said. “It can have significant implications as siblings grow older.”

In October, HaMercaz held a workshop for parents on the special needs of siblings, presented by marriage and family therapist Diane Simon Smith.

“Children may be confused about their sibling’s condition or have misconceptions about the cause of the problem,” she said. “They may resent the disruption of plans, frequent medical and therapy appointments or attention required by the special-needs sibling. They may feel isolated, embarrassed or an undue pressure to achieve.”

For Azrialy, who wrote a book about this topic, the overwhelming issue was guilt.

“I felt guilty for being healthy … for not being a good enough sister, for things coming so easily to me,” she said. “I didn’t do anything to deserve my good health, and [my brothers] didn’t do anything to deserve what they got.”

Parents can help mitigate such sentiments, Simon Smith said.

“It’s important for parents to provide a safe place for siblings to talk about the range of their feelings, whether with them or another safe adult,” she said. “Also, providing siblings the opportunity to meet peers in similar life circumstances helps them realize that they are not alone and that the kinds of feelings they experience are shared by others.”

Smith said that along with presenting challenges, having a special-needs sibling bestows certain gifts.

“These children tend to have greater maturity,” she said. “They have a different outlook, and a sense that other kids can be consumed with trivial things. They learn compassion, tolerance and understanding of others’ differences.”

This seems to be the case for Rachel Wolf. A 16-year-old student in the Humanities Program at Hamilton High School, Wolf has a 12-year-old brother, Danny, with cerebral palsy. He uses a walker or chair to get around, and communicates with non-family members using a touch-screen computer.

“I’ve never known life any other way,” she said. “He’s still my brother.”

Wolf has benefited from parents who speak openly with her about Danny’s condition (her mother, Michelle, is the other co-founder of HaMercaz), a supportive community and participation in programs for special-needs families. She and Danny especially enjoy taking part in the Miracle Project (not affiliated with HaMercaz), a drama program for special need kids and their “typically developing” siblings and peers.

“Everyone has quirks and ‘special needs,'” Wolf said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t show.”

Based on the growing incidence of autism spectrum disorders alone, demand for programs like HaMercaz is likely to increase. A neurological condition, autism affects a person’s ability to communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to the environment. Whether due to changes in how children are diagnosed or an actual increase in prevalence, autism is growing at the rate of 10 percent to 17 percent a year, according to the Autism Society of America. In California, reported cases increased by 273 percent from 1987 to 1998.

HaMercaz will hold more sibling-related programs in the coming months. In December, the group will host a Chanukah celebration at the Skirball Cultural Center and will hold a family day at the Zimmer Children’s Museum in February. Other programs slated for next year include a three-part workshop on the Individualized Education Program (IEP) as well as programs on safety, vocational needs, and dealing with difficult behavior. Families are also encouraged to contact partner agency Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles to match siblings with Big Brothers and Sisters.

For more information, call 1-866-287-8030 or go to www.HaMercaz.org.

Agencies Join to Aid Special-Needs Kids

Sally Weber never felt so alone.

Nearly three decades ago, she learned her daughter had a severe language disorder that hindered her development. Besides dealing with the shock of having a child with special needs, Weber found little solace in the local Jewish community that had hitherto had given her so much joy.

At the time, Southland temples and institutions offered no Jewish camps, day schools or programming for special-needs children and their families. In Jewish circles, as in society at large, children with developmental disorders such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome and cerebral palsy were often seen as burdens to bear, rather than as joys to celebrate.

“I was completely isolated,” said Weber, now director of Jewish Family Service’s Jewish Community Programs. “There was no place to go as a parent.”

Thanks to her and two other Jewish communal professionals with special-needs children of their own, local Jewish families grappling with similar issues now have somewhere to turn for help.

In November, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles brought together seven other agencies, including, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Free Loan Association and Etta Israel Center, to create Hamercaz, a central resource for Jewish families raising special-needs children under 22.

The brainchild of Weber and Michelle Wolf, The Federation’s assistant director of planning and allocations — whose 11-year-old son has cerebral palsy — Hamercaz, or the center, offers a variety of services through its partner agencies, ranging from interest-free loans for diagnostic testing to support groups for overwhelmed parents to Shabbat dinners for children with special needs.

“Before the creation of Hamercaz, a person would have to make several phone calls or talk to friends of friends of friends to get what they needed,” said Wolf, who along with Weber, works part time on the Hamercaz project. “Now, you can get it all in one place.”

To access available services, parents can call the toll-free number, (866) 287-8030, and discuss their situation with Hamercaz’s program coordinator Amy Bryman. A licensed social worker, Bryman makes referrals to partner and other service agencies and later follows up with a phone call. In the program’s first six weeks, she received 30 calls from parents.

“It makes me feel good to see parents getting help with their newly diagnosed children,” said Bryman, the mother of a 6-year-old son with autism.

Some of the partner agencies and the services offered include:

  • Jewish Free Loan offers interest-free loans up to $10,000 to help finance diagnostic tests, therapy and treatment for children with autism and other special needs.
  • Jewish Family Service has a program that sends trained volunteers into the homes of families with special-needs children to perform any number of tasks, including taking children to the park to give parents a respite.
  • The Bureau of Jewish Education refers parents to Jewish schools that can accommodate their children’s needs. The bureau also holds lectures throughout the year addressing such topics as autism and how to get proper diagnostic testing.
  • The appearance of Hamercaz comes at a time when autism and other developmental disorders appear on the rise. Locally, an estimated 6,000 Jewish families in greater Los Angeles have children with developmental or severe learning disabilities, according to Jewish groups. Nationally, one in 166 newborns has autism, the Autism Society of America said. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other government agencies, autism is growing at a rate of 10 percent to 17 percent a year, the Autism Society added.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects the normal functioning of the brain. People with autism typically have problems with verbal communication, social interaction and play activities.

Hamercaz got its start with the help of a $48,700 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. That money has allowed the center to hire Bryman for 15 hours a week and has also paid for a media campaign.

Support from Rabbi Mark Diamond has also helped get the word out. The executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California recently sent letters out to the group’s 270 member rabbis, encouraging them to promote Hamercaz to their congregations.

“Sadly, for too many years, families were told, ‘Your child can’t get a Jewish education. Sorry, your child can’t go to a Jewish day school,'” said Diamond, who has worked with children with special needs for more than 25 years. “I think it’s a sacred mandate of the Jewish community to take care of our own, and that means taking care of each and every one of our children.”

On April 2, The Federation will host a fair for Jewish parents of children with special needs at the New Jewish Community Center at Milken in West Hills from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Representatives of all partner agencies will be in attendance. For more information on the event or Hamercaz, contact Michelle Wolf at MWolf@JewishLA.org.