On Wednesdays, Melissa
Sachs learns Hebrew at the Bender Jewish Community Center in Rockville, Maryland. On Thursdays, she works as a stock associate at AC Moore, an arts and crafts store. On Fridays, she cleans bathrooms at Staples.
“Mondays and Tuesdays are my relaxing days,” said Sachs. The 38-year-old is a resident of one of the 25 homes available for individuals with developmental, physical or mental disabilities in the Greater Washington area through the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH).
Thanks to JFGH, Sachs has been able to carve out a life for herself that is more social and less dependent on her family. The nonprofit organization, which was created in 1983, helps adults who have developmental, physical or mental disabilities become more independent and an integrated part of the community.
JFGH has 22 homes in Maryland and three in Northern Virginia, as well as more than 50 apartments. Besides its 160 residents, JFGH serves another 40 people in transitional and social programs. It employs 275 people, of which 240 work directly with residents.
Sachs has a boyfriend who lives in another JFGH home. In her room, which she calls “my little hide-out place,” she crochets and listens to music. She also plays basketball and is the president of JFGH’s resident council, where she helps find activities for her fellow-residents that are both nearby and wheelchair-accessible.
In the Rockville home she shares with five other residents, who range in age from 36 to 55 years old, Sachs helps with the cleaning and makes dinner once a week, usually lasagna or tuna casserole. On the weekends, residents from many of the homes get together to attend a concert or community or synagogue event.
Anique Lewis-Royce, the lead direct support for this home, is one of seven staff members who man the home 24 hours a day. When the residents are out at their jobs during the day, Lewis-Royce handles the paper work and necessary documents. While they are home, she is there to assist, “making sure they are able to complete their goals,” she said.
“This is a high-function house,” Lewis-Royce said. All residents go to a job or special program during the day. “They are all independent. We are here to help them with right from wrong things to do.”
Other JFGH homes are home to residents with a variety of function levels. One in Rockville is home to only hearing-impaired residents and staff.
Lewis-Royce has been working at the home where Sachs lives for the past seven years and has grown very attached to her charges. “We have a great relationship. It’s more of a family here,” she said.
Sachs agreed, calling Lewis-Royce “the best.”
Besides its residential program, JFGH helps men and women who have physical, mental or developmental disabilities and are older than 18 years in other ways. Its Sally and Robert Goldberg Maryland Meaningful Opportunities for Successful Transition Program (MOST) is a one-year transitional program for individuals with disabilities who are too old for public school programs. In a work setting, participants learn to model behavior and feel part of a group while those who work with them learn to grow comfortable working around people who are different.
The aim of MOST, which started in 2008 in Montgomery County and in 2011 in Fairfax County, is to enable people with disabilities who are over 21 years old–– under federal law, special education students are entitled to a public-school education until they are 21–– to maintain and build on the skills they learned while attending school.
Besides their jobs, MOST participants learn to manage their money, cook a meal and use public transportation. They also grow socially. Participants work on art projects, go bowling and visit museums together.
JFGH strives to help their clients live life to the fullest. Recently, it has turned its focus somewhat to enable its residents to help others.
It’s not that the residents of the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes aren’t grateful. They really love when people come by to celebrate Shabbat and bring delicious food, or invite them to a program at their synagogue.
But JFGH residents are getting a little tired of only being on the receiving end. They want to give back. They want to be a regular part of the Jewish community, attending and participating in lots of programs.
“We are perceived as recipients of charity,” said Lew Fontek, JFGH’s chief development officer. However, he said, “it’s just not about receiving. It’s about giving too.”
Fontek really wants people from a wide variety of Jewish organizations to call and invite residents to participate in their programs. “We’ve had a tremendous relationship with the Jewish community, but there’s a need for more structure,” he said. He would love for JFGH to become a visible part of the community on a regular, continued basis.
The Jewish community welcomes people with disabilities from time to time, he said. It’s time to turn the tables. “We are refocusing our efforts by saying we could provide a lot for you.”
If a synagogue is having a social action event that involves making care packages, JFGH residents hope that synagogue members won’t just create them and then drop them off at a nearby home. Instead, they should invite the residents to work side by side on the packages, and then bring them along when everything is delivered to a food pantry or homeless shelter.
Let them be part of the mitzvah, Fontek said, and let them have that same feeling of giving to those less fortunate.
“We have a relationship with almost every synagogue in some way,” he said. It’s high time to “bolster these relationships.”
If a synagogue is planning a musical event, invite JFGH residents, who will “bring the party,” Fontek said. “We will sing. We will dance. We will make the party better,” he promised, noting residents are usually the first to get up and dance.
Residents also would like to be party sponsors. Why not hold a Purim party at one of JFGH’s homes? “Come back and celebrate with us,” he said, adding that the homes have kitchens.
Don’t just invite people with disabilities into your sukkah, Fontek said. Let them help build or take it down. He noted how great it would be for JFGH residents to work together, say blessings together and eat together as full members of the Jewish community.
“We want the community to stop looking for ways to help us and look for more ways to include us. Work with us, not for us,” Fontek said.
The residents also are interested in sharing ritual. They can participate in a Shabbat service, read a prayer, lead a song, he noted. It’s great that some synagogues offer free seats for High Holiday services, but it would be even better if the residents could be included in the service.
Another idea to show residents they are a part of the community would be to visit them for a game night, he said. JFGH also welcomes “rewarming showers” for some of the residences that were opened 30 years ago and whose supplies are aging.
“There are so many options out there” to make JFGH residents feel welcome, Fontek said. “Let’s make it happen.”
For information or to schedule an event, contact Francine Triola, development and volunteer coordinator, at 240-283-6009.
Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.