Programs aim to help young adults with disabilities

Jonah Yanofsky, 21, and his mother Cynthia Davis sing the praises of the Montreal Shira Choir for adults with special needs, created last year by Cantor Danny and Muriel Benlolo. Yanofsky discovered he loves to sing and attend weekly rehearsals. His mom, a dedicated volunteer, says “it’s hard to describe how beautiful it is.” (Janice Arnold photo)

Dayna Wiseman is blunt about what it was like to be a young Jewish adult with special needs, who at 21 had “aged” out of public services.

“I was sitting at home on the couch rotting,” she told a Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) event, held Feb. 15 at The Adath synagogue, together with Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, and under the aegis of the Alink Foundation.

“There were few resources,” Sugar Miller said. “The future looked bleak.”

The grassroots nonprofit was founded four years ago by Helene Donath and Harriet Sugar Miller, parents of “neurodiverse” young adults, to build alliances with community organizations and the private sector to create programming and services for this age group.

This forum was an opportunity to assess what has happened in the last couple of years. Key was Federation CJA’s hiring of a full-time inclusion co-ordinator, Carly Goodman.

The Adath, under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Whitman, has been among the most responsive in the community. The synagogue is the site of Alink’s activities, including the flagship Cooking for Kiddush, a program for young people like Wiseman, a passionate baker.

“I would not be where I am today without Cooking for Kiddush,” she said.

Finding jobs, housing, and social engagement for young adults are the “brass tacks” of inclusion, Sugar Miller said.

Cooking for Kiddush is teaming up with the new startup Zera Café and Catering, founded by Eve Rochman, who will hire young adults with special needs to cater small events and to make foods for takeout.

The forum heard from two inclusive employers. Sam Benamron said he has only had a positive experience with employees with development delays at his physiotherapy clinics over the past four years.

“It’s just the normal thing to do, to help them maximize their potential,” he said. “When I see the smile on their faces when they show up for work every day, I know it’s the way to go.”

Martin Gould, founder and executive director of the new initiative PROMO 21, said he was motivated to act when he saw that his partner’s son had nothing to do and stayed in his room all day after he turned 21 and became too old for educational programs.

Founded seven months ago, PROMO 21 has 17 employees living with autism or other intellectual disabilities working on the silkscreen printing of T-shirts, as well as 11 trainees. Gould is looking to double that number in the next year. “It’s amazing the dedication and skills they put in.”

Gould collaborates with the federation agency Ometz to find people, and Ometz also assists in skills development to live autonomously.

Edina Marovitz, manager of Ometz’s supported employment services, which is funded by provincial Emploi-Québec, said the services to job-seekers of all ages and employers are free.

What’s new, made possible by a Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal grant, is a program of short-term (approximately 13 weeks) placement with federation agencies to gain practical work experience, she said.

The Friendship Circle, a Chabad-affiliated program started some 20 years ago to provide social and recreational activities for children and teens with special needs, is now reaching out to young adults as well, said Mushky Paris, director of FCConnect.

Started a few years ago, FCConnect is now concerned also with vocational opportunities and has added a café, bakery and arts studio for practice.

Finding affordable, supervised housing for young adults is a difficult problem, Sugar Miller said. The wait for government-sponsored group homes is typically 12-14 years in the Montreal area, and few are suitable for Jewish anglophones.

Many also want a real home, rather than an  institutional setting.

Ideally, Alink wants young people housed in regular apartment buildings with 24/7 support on site.

She announced that Alink is working closely with the Miriam Foundation,  Miriam Home and Kehilla Montreal  to find housing solutions for adults with disabilities.

Kehilla Montreal is a federation agency working with government and the private sector to build housing for low and moderate-income tenants. 

Sugar Miller said that Alink’s vision is to have a small cluster of housing units with support on site 24/7 within an apartment building open to everyone and to have a transitional program to train adults to live outside the family home.  

She hopes this will serve as a model for more such housing, but “this is parent-driven; we have to speak up about what we need.”

An unconventional housing option is proposed by Joan Gottman, a parent and president of Metta Terre, which wants to establish a “land-based community” for individuals with special needs and “those who choose to share their lives with them,” loosely modeled on the international Camphill Movement.

Metta Terre is looking in areas within an hour from Montreal for the first community of about 50 residents.

Other news was that the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA has revamped its special needs programming and hired consultant Matthew Selvin.

The Y will be the site of the soon-to-open 5,000-square foot L’Annexe, the Ometz Young Adult Centre that will bring together services for those with special needs or mental health issues at one location, as well house a workshop, lounge and kitchen, said chief program officer Susan Karpman.

To contact Alink, email [email protected]