LA leaders find inspiration at innovative special needs programs for adults in Israel

Eliza Wilson’s holy moment in Israel didn’t come at the Western Wall. Sure, the 21-year-old with autism was honored and moved to place a note in the Wall on behalf of the 40 people traveling with her on a mission to learn about Israel’s programs for adults with special needs.
November 15, 2012

Eliza Wilson’s holy moment in Israel didn’t come at the Western Wall. Sure, the 21-year-old with autism was honored and moved to place a note in the Wall on behalf of the 40 people traveling with her on a mission to learn about Israel’s programs for adults with special needs.

But Wilson’s most intense inspiration came at Beit Issie Shapiro, an innovative nonprofit promoting disability inclusion programs for children and adults in Israel. There, Wilson visited the Snoezelen room, a multisensory Mecca of lights, textures, sounds and aromas meant to both calm and stimulate those with developmental disabilities.

“When the lights went on, it was like being at Disneyland. It was amazing. I was blown away by it,” Wilson said.

She spoke about the July mission at a meeting Nov. 5 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for 140 parents, advocates and professionals who came to hear what members of the Federation-sponsored trip learned in Israel, and what could apply to Los Angeles’ rapidly growing population of young adults with special needs.

“I know that a lot of you were thinking we were going to come back and we were going to build a kibbutz over here in West L.A. — and we did think about that while on the trip,” said Judy Mark, an activist who co-chaired the trip.

But, she said, while the group saw many examples of innovative programs, what became most apparent was the need for a force to benefit the entire emerging field.

Mark and others on the mission outlined a list of goals centered around funding, advocacy, research and collaboration, and said they hoped to mobilize working groups quickly.

At the same time, the Federation has invited the mission’s leaders, as well as a targeted group of Jewish professionals and lay activists in the field, to a planning meeting at the end of this month to chart a comprehensive communal approach for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

“This has become a priority for the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, and we are very proud to partner with so many of you in this room and to see how we can go forward and make a difference and meet the needs,” Lori Klein, the Federation’s senior vice president in charge of Caring for Jews in Need, told the meeting.

The move toward comprehensive planning comes at time of heightened focus on helping adults, and not just children, with developmental disabilities. In addition to the Israel mission, lay activists locally are working on creating a pooled trust, so that parents can set up communally monitored private accounts to fund long-term care for their adult children. Etta Israel, an advocacy and service program for individuals with special needs, has just merged with Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, a social service organization in New York, raising its profile and programming expectations. Various parent groups are experimenting with independent living models, and Bet Tzedek legal services is spearheading a task force focused on the elderly with disabilities.

Federation and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles together run HaMercaz, an information clearinghouse and communal umbrella group for families of children with special needs. But HaMercaz is not yet equipped to meet the exploding needs of adults with special needs. 

In the next few years, the population of adults with autism is expected to rise by 500 percent. Parents need to plan for the long term by finding not only stable living situations, but programs that will enable their children to have meaningful daily activities, friends, jobs and romance, said Michelle Wolf, who co-chaired the mission to Israel. 

The goal was to bring home ideas from successful Israeli programs.

At the Nov. 5 meeting, a film showed highlights of the trip and members of the group described visiting Kibbutz Harduf, where residents with developmental disabilities grow their own organic food and serve it in a cafe they run, and where they create pottery and handmade paper. The film showed Kishorit, a village where residents live mostly in private quarters and participate in the village’s industries — making toys, breeding champion dogs and raising horses, goats and free-range chickens.

The group also visited other models, where those living in private apartments in the community receive enough support services and job opportunities to live independently. 

They visited inclusive playgrounds that are being replicated across the world and a deaf/blind theater ensemble.

“It exemplified how they are bringing out the best in each person,” said Elaine Hall, director of Vista Del Mar’s Vista Inspire programs, which bring art and spirituality to children with developmental disabilities. “We can do the impossible because it’s being done every day in Israel.”

While Israel still has some work toward becoming a fully inclusive society, mission-goers were inspired by a man with Down syndrome who works at an army base, and by parent advocates who work to bring together government and private funding to get their needs met.

Mark said the group was most inspired by the collaborative model at Beit Issie Shapiro, a model she can see replicating in Los Angeles, and, she said, Beit Issie Shapiro is committed to helping Los Angeles lay the groundwork.

While Beit Issie Shapiro creates programs, facilities and therapies, Mark said she is more interested in the advocacy aspect of its work, which supports widespread innovation and brings different groups together. 

“I see at least a half-dozen of you sitting here today who are building something of some sort, and most of you don’t know each other. One of the best things we as a group can do is to introduce you to each other,” Mark said. 

That collaboration is one of six goals Mark and others outlined at the meeting. In addition to bringing cooperation and communication where before there was competition, they hope to raise inclusion awareness, advocate for more government and private funding and provide families with thorough, accessible information. They also hope to fund research into quality of life issues, and then to use that research to fund the most effective programs. 

While expressing gratitude for Federation support, Mark cautioned that the needs of the community are too urgent for bureaucratic slow down.

“I think we have to figure out the balance between being inclusive and getting as many voices as possible heard, and moving forward as quickly as we can, because we’re in an urgent situation,” Mark said. 

Klein responded that the understandable sense of urgency has made this process evolve faster than anticipated, and Federation is eager to organize the various strands.

“We are not holding this up for the sake of holding it up, but there are things to consider. Every time we have a conversation, everyone has their own priorities, whether it’s about housing or a resource center or a pooled trust. Everyone has what they want, and we believe it is our role to say we’re going to take the lead on this and figure out what are all of the communal needs, and how are we going to prioritize those,” Klein said.

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