Original Post Published On Foundation for the Jewish Camp

While doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and so many others were working from home and not always feeling very “essential” during the pandemic, Austin, Tiffany, and other people with disabilities were teaching what it means to be and feel truly essential.

When the pandemic hit and it became clear that camp would not take place this summer in the same way it had in previous summers, Ramah campers across North America were deeply disappointed. In the months leading up to summer, campers with and without disabilities enjoyed dozens of quality programs offered by each individual camp and by National Ramah. Even with the availability of these programs, current members of our vocational training programs and alumni—many who found themselves out of work or no longer at in-person internships—expressed concerns that without a summer at camp, they would lose the opportunity to work on important vocational and social skills. We quickly mobilized to create TikvahNet, a series of 75-minute Zoom meetings facilitated by Ramah Tikvah staff, focusing on both job skills and socialization.

We recently kicked off our third 8-week series of TikvahNet programming. To date, over 80 current or former Tikvah voc ed program members have participated. For each session, the program coordinator and four staff members prepare PowerPoint slides, enabling participants with a wide range of intellectual and developmental disabilities and verbal abilities to fully participate in the program. Slides were shared with participants and families prior to each session so they could prepare in advance. We have learned about money management, workplace behavior, the elections and our right to vote, proper precautions to take during the pandemic, resumes, and self-advocacy. We have also cooked, danced, enjoyed a virtual tour of Israel and a Chanukah party, and made cards of appreciation to frontline workers. The level of dedication of the staff members truly led to the success of the program. They developed, individualized, and expanded the concept of TikvahNet so that it will continue even beyond the pandemic.

One of the great benefits of TikvahNet has been watching participants from Toronto socializing with old and new friends from Chicago, Seattle, Washington, Miami, and Los Angeles—across three time zones! Participants enjoy sharing stories of one very special thing they have in common—camp! They compare notes on similarities and differences between camps–special Shabbat foods, whether they have a pool or a lake, and where they pray on Shabbat. They look forward to ending each session with the Ramah-wide nighttime song, Rad Hayom.

Perhaps most inspiring has been listening to Austin and Tiffany tell the group about their jobs. Austin spoke about his job at a hospital in St. Louis, where he delivers food trays to patients in their rooms. “I am an essential worker!” he tells the group. Tiffany of Los Angeles adds, “I’m an essential worker, too! I work in a grocery store.” Austin and Tiffany are performing essential work and more importantly, are feeling like the essential workers that they are.

We hope to continue helping people with disabilities feel more essential and ultimately find meaningful employment. In the current phase of TikvahNet, we are inviting businesses who employ people with disabilities to describe what it takes to be hired by their companies. We have already heard from Blue Star Recyclers (computer and electronic recycling), and will soon hear from Luv Michael, a granola company. Two current TikahNet participants and their parents will soon join to share the story of Shred Support, the DC-area shredding company they started during the pandemic. These two young men with Down Syndrome, Uriel and Jacob, are doing essential work and teaching the community what it feels like to be essential.

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Original Article Published On The Respectability.org

It has been said that “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The COVID pandemic has certainly posed tremendous vocational challenges for people with disabilities, who, despite already experiencing an employment rate less than half of people without disabilities, experienced 40% greater job loss with minimal recovery. It has also provided unprecedented opportunities—to develop skills, to continue working from home and in person (for those who currently have jobs) and to think creatively about new opportunities.

Many people with disabilities and organizations working with them have responded swiftly and creatively. Participants and families in our National Ramah Tikvah Network vocational training programs, located in our 10 Ramah camps in the US and Canada, expressed concerns about social isolation and job skills. In response, we swiftly created TikvahNET, a vocational training and socialization program.

We recently completed our second 8-week program and will soon begin our third. We offer facilitated socialization time and work in small breakout rooms, using PowerPoint slides and discussions, to address such topics as physical and mental wellness, money and budgeting, laundry and booking skills, resumes and interviews and social media skills and etiquette. In our third cycle, we will bring employers with impressive records of hiring people with disabilities to share what they are looking for in potential employees, and we will use our breakout room time to work on those skills.

Alumni of our programs—some in their 40s and 50s—have shared their journeys from camp and high school graduation to the present, focusing on their employment, social lives and level of inclusion and participation in the Jewish community. There have been heartwarming moments. Austin, who works in a hospital in St. Louis, and Tiffany, who works in a grocery store in Los Angeles, spoke of being essential workers. They and other Tikvah alum feel valued when thanked for performing these essential duties.

Other members of the Tikvah community have productively used their time at home during the pandemic to focus on start-up businesses. Uriel and Jacob, two young Washington, DC-area men with Down Syndrome, have created Shred Support, a shredding business. Alexa, a Long Island, NY-based young woman, also with Down Syndrome, has created Truly Scrumptious by Alexa, selling custom chocolate-covered cookies. Yum!

Beyond our program, Chapel Haven Schleifer Center, a residential school and independent living program in New Haven, CT, runs a program called CareerAbility, founded to meet the need for meaningful employment among its participants. During this time, CareerAbility focused all of their energy on keeping job seekers and working adults engaged in the workforce. They immediately launched virtual offerings while simultaneously providing safe community-based work experiences for adults to perform their career explorations, internships, and jobs. This resulted in clients engaged in 67 community-based job skill development experiences.

It is hard to conceptualize what this will mean post Covid-19. But these tough times demand out-of-the-box thinking, creativity, flexibility and taking calculated risks. There may be an ongoing need for more cleaning and sanitizing at businesses or hospitals. If people remain reluctant to travel to stores, it could be useful to start a delivery or courier business modeled after Good Foot Delivery in Toronto, Canada, which provides personalized point-to-point delivery on foot and public transit, creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

As we emerge from the pandemic, what is clear is that we NEED a range of employment options for people with disabilities including small businesses and big companies, on-site and remote options, flexible and varying hours each week–5 hours, 15 hours, 40 hours or more. And these jobs need to exist across a wide range of industries. I have been working to map the landscape of creative places of employment for people with disabilities. I have discovered magicians, IKEA furniture assemblers, bike mechanics, car restorers, high-end cabinet makers, vertical farmers, coders, cybersecurity specialists, mammogram readers and more.

Our tradition tells us that we may sow in tears and reap in joy. Let us not waste the crisis of this pandemic, but reap creative gains in the post-pandemic employment for people with disabilities!

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