By: Kayla Schorr, JFCS Communications Intern
As a 20-year-old woman from Cherry Hill who has never dealt with any type of mental or physical disability, I have always felt extremely blessed to live a full life, bursting with opportunities. Although I am eternally grateful for the cards I have been dealt, I feel that I have been sheltered. Growing up, I was never truly exposed to people who live their lives with disabilities. I can candidly admit that the special needs programs I visited through JFCS not only opened my eyes to this community, but made me more aware of the incredible programs and opportunities people with special needs can discover.
I began with TOPS, which stands for To Our Positive Success. I pulled up to the Jewish Federation Annex on a Thursday morning. For me, setting an alarm for 8 a.m. during summer vacation was not a feat I was quite prepared to face. But for many, as I soon realized, waking up to attend the TOPS day program is truly worthwhile.
This special needs day program, supervised by Amy Block, aims to provide young adults with a warm environment where they can make new friends, engage in a variety of activities, and just have fun. Participants can expect to play sports, make several types of artistic projects, play games and go on trips.
“The program really gives them so many opportunities to make friends, to get out of the house, to try something new,” said Amy. “We call it an enrichment program, rather than a day program, because of all of the cool things that we offer.”
I walked into the Annex without any particular expectations. I talked to Amy about the program’s background and goals while she answered the door for the participants. That in itself demonstrated just how warm of an environment the TOPS program strives to be-the fact that each participant is greeted personally at the door spoke measures about the amount of care and dedication the TOPS staff express daily.
On the day that I shadowed the TOPS program, ballroom dancing was making its first debut on the schedule. Because this program was so new to the participants, Amy anticipated a great deal of resistance. To her surprise, this was not at all the case. The participants put their belongings down in a classroom and then enthusiastically skipped over to the gym to meet two ballroom dancing instructors. The instructors began with a simple warm up and asked the TOPS participants to get into a circle, hold hands, and walk in and out to the tune of “Just Haven’t Met You Yet” by Michael Bublé. Just from this simple dance, the participants became eager to dance even more.
The instructors chanted, “step, step, march-in-place” (from a musical perspective, 1, 2, 3 and 4) and showed the group exactly how to trot along to the music. The participants held each other’s hands and worked in teams to try to figure out how to execute the dance moves and rhythmic patterns.
I stood on the stage and watched the participants as they chanted and shuffled along to the music. Although ballroom dancing was new to the TOPS calendar, the group seemed to love every minute of it. I watched as they helped each other learn the new dance routines, hug and take pictures together. Just from about a half hour of observation, I could truly tell that this gym was bursting at the seams with love, support, and community.
I hopped off of the stage to meet some of the TOPS participants and get to know them a little more. I first approached Michelle Maltez and Matt Gardner, who were selected to be ballroom dancing partners.
“I make so many friends [at TOPS],” said Maltez. “I love coming here and seeing everyone.” I made my way around the gym and spoke to several different pairs of TOPS participants. Each person I spoke with expressed profound enthusiasm toward the opportunities that TOPS offers. I felt so at home with this group. Even though I was a complete stranger, each participant was more than willing to befriend me and share memories with me.
After a while of ballroom dancing, we went back to one of the classrooms and had “friendship circle.” A typical day at TOPS usually begins with this activity, but because of the ballroom dancing on this day, it was switched to a bit later. During this time, participants shared what was going on in their personal lives. I yet again was thoroughly impressed by how engaged the staff was in the participants’ lives. The staff knows about every participant’s likes, dislikes, hobbies, jobs, friends, etc. Witnessing this intimate time for only a few minutes was enough to gauge how much the TOPS staff truly cares about the participants. Support systems are sometimes very difficult to find, and after observing circle time briefly, I could tell that TOPS really is a safe haven for every one of the participants.
In addition to TOPS, I observed another JFCS special needs program, Supports to Achieve Independent Living (SAIL). This program is more geared to high functioning participants who have only some minor cognitive and social challenges. I went to the Jewish Federation Annex on a Tuesday night for game night. Just like with TOPS, I instantly felt at home at this program.
I called many participants out of the room to interview them briefly on the program. Similar to TOPS, I only received positive feedback. SAIL provides an exciting evening life to young adults with special needs. SAIL creates a very inclusive environment for many different participants who truly seek a community.
“It is a great opportunity to socially bond with people and help others who may struggle more than I am,” said John Profaci, 23. “SAIL has helped me realize my strengths and weaknesses and I am so happy when I come here.”
Living with any kind of disability or syndrome can be a tremendous challenge. I know that I personally take life’s blessings for granted, and from observing two special needs programs that JFCS fruitfully provides for our community, I feel grateful. I feel grateful because with challenges in daily life, we all need people to whom we can relate and trust. We all find solace in different people and places, and I am convinced JFCS provides a home for so many people who just want to be loved and appreciated just like anyone else. I am honored to have had the opportunity to see where so many young adults in my community call home.