Smooth Sailing Ahead for the JFCS SAIL  (Supports to Achieve Independent Living) Program

SAIL team participating in the Special Olympics competition in 2015.

A lot of exciting things are rising up on the horizon this year in the special needs department. The SAIL (Supports to Achieve Independent Living) special needs program welcomed a new captain at the helm with the hiring of Michael Rhodes, SAIL Coordinator, and found a home at the new Jewish Federation Annex at 1721 Springdale Road.  The SAIL program, which provides a variety of social and recreational activities and life skills supports, was a fit for Rhodes’ long history with special needs programming, and he was eager to set a new course for activities and engagement with the participants.

“I took over SAIL in January of this year; prior to that time, I spent the last few years working as a facilitator at SAIL events, with my hand in as many events each month as possible, says Rhodes. “When I first took over coordinating the SAIL program, my first goal was to introduce more events each month, with many of those at a low cost to the members.  Each member pays an annual fee to be a part of SAIL, and the members themselves pay for the events that they attend.”

“With the allocation of 1721 Springdale Road, I was able to begin reserving the classrooms to hold monthly events, which immediately lowered the cost to the members.  The next step was developing some activities that we could hold in the classrooms that were of interest to the members.  I started with a few ideas.  One was a game night, where the members were encouraged to bring games from home, in addition to board and card games that I purchased for the group.”

The increased number of activities and the addition of new space for events are just some of the new aspects of the landscape of the program. Rhodes also wished to increase the health component – incorporating more healthy foods and regular fitness nights for the participants. It’s a wish that he is fulfilling on behalf of all of his members.

“Most of our events held in the new building have a dinner of pizza, soda and snacks.  While this is cost effective, and everyone enjoys the food, I wanted to try to balance this out a little.  I reserved our gymnasium for a Saturday night and planned a monthly recreation night with some physical games, which eventually included basketball, dodge ball, kickball, and other games,” says Rhodes. “When the weather is nice, I take the monthly recreation night outside for some activities and games. Before the event, my girlfriend and I buy fresh fruit and vegetables.  We clean and cut them up, make some fresh dips and I serve the group a healthy mix of fruit and vegetables, with water in place of soda.”

Rhodes also coordinates the Special Olympics program, made up of SAIL members, who compete in softball, basketball and soccer each year, and are looking to add floor hockey this coming winter.

Part of the continued success of the program under Rhodes’ guidance comes from his attention to keeping the lines of communication open with the parents and participants, creating an ongoing discussion regarding the needs of the program’s members. Quarterly, a planning committee meets, in which the members can give suggestions for activities in the coming months, and Rhodes works to incorporate as many of these ideas as possible, within the financial budget.  Additionally, Rhodes enthusiastically networks with local businesses, to work on future events and ways to partner with them, to make new events affordable for the group.

One of these partnerships helped to shape “Geek Out” night, where the group engages in anything geeky.  “I made a connection with the owner of a local comic book shop, who donates comic books for our group.  The members are encouraged to take out some comic books from our lending library, and share their thoughts at the next month’s group.  We also have the members nominate ‘geeky’ TV shows and movies, which we watch over the course of the night.  I use an app that acts as a random spinning wheel, where each member’s pick can be entered and one of the selections is chosen at random.”

Keeping the members in the loop and including them on the decision-making for the program activity has helped to tailor events – even making the movie night a little more of a democracy. “ I felt like we could get a good crowd at our own building to watch a movie, reducing the cost to members of going out to a theater, for food and the cost to see a movie.  In order to combat the problem of having everyone decide on a movie to see, I created a theme for each month – the members then vote on a movie in that month’s category, with the ‘most voted for’ movie being watched. With a huge fan base for WWE (pro wrestling) amongst the members, it was voted with a resounding “yes” that it would be part of their monthly activities.

“I decided to bring my apple TV to one of the classrooms each month and stream the live WWE pay-per-view for everyone.  In order to inject a little more fun into the night, I provide each member with a list of that event’s wrestling matches.  The member or members that make the most correct picks gets to select a prize at the end of the night.  The prizes range from pop culture t-shirts and items I pick up while I’m out and about, as well as items donated from the comic book shop, which includes getting to meet WWE wrestlers when they do signings,” says Rhodes.

“One of our former members, Evan Heft, who was in SAIL from the start and our Special Olympics, had started training in professional wrestling with a company in Delaware.  He let me know that this school puts on a monthly live pro-wrestling event and has moved from Delaware to Woodbury Heights.  Our group had attended a few live wrestling events in the past, but the new East Coast Wrestling Association (ECWA) is family-friendly, so I reached out to the owner.  I worked out a reduced ticket price for our group, and we get between 15-20 attendees each month.  The owner was very happy to see us support the company and has gone out of his way to put Evan in one of the matches each month.  This has been a great experience for Evan, as well as our group, who are seeing one of their own friends living out his dream.”

Needless to say, this year has been an eventful one for the SAIL Program.  The group has also gone to Atlantic City to see WWE live, seen the Harlem Globetrotters in Philadelphia, won third place in their Special Olympics softball tournament, hosted a BBQ for friends and family at the new location, and a karate program designed for individuals with special needs is slated for the near future.  With each of the new events getting great feedback from the members and hosting between 10 and 20 attendees each, it’s safe to say that it waters are smooth as the SAIL program navigates toward fun and exciting new horizons.


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