February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. As part of our Federation’s commitment to inclusion, every week this month we will feature a blog written by either a member of our community, his or her parent, or a volunteer or professional working with one of our partner organizations that serves individuals living with special needs.
We recently interviewed Michelle Cait, a community member and the director of Shemesh Enterprises, a program at Federation’s partner organization, Shalom Institute. Shemesh Enterprises is a social enterprise that employs young adults with diverse abilities to work on their farm, package their produce, and sell their products at farmers’ markets or online. Cait received her master’s degree in art therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is married to comedian and voice-over artist Robert Cait, and together they have three children. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, swimming, and writing screenplays.
What are some easy ways to become more aware?
Once we pay attention, then we can start seeing past ourselves and begin broadening our perspective.
Some easy ways to become more aware are homing in on our own inner sensitivity and compassion toward others and our environment, taking that extra step to really engage in a connection with someone outside our comfort zone, or trying an activity in nature that challenges us.
How do you teach your client/participant self-advocacy skills?
At Shemesh, we teach self-advocacy skills by engaging in the work, growing our enterprise, and involving all of our employees in important aspects of the business. Learning how to plant, harvest, and identify the herbs and produce in our garden, in addition to developing an understanding of our inventory, sales, shipping, marketing, and branding are concrete skillsets that are empowering and instigate the notion of self-advocacy. In addition, being a Farm Fellow at Shemesh means having the opportunity to choose and follow through with that choice. It’s a choice to be part of our working community and learn new work skills as well as collaborating with co-workers in a supportive and creative environment.
Talking about our financial goals is another significant part of our enterprise. Learning about how money works is another power tool toward self-advocacy. Each Farm Fellow can express their own ideas, and we listen to each other. This value teaches that everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has something to offer. This is very much in sync with Jewish values — the idea of counting everyone in. We are patient with each other during our work, including our business meetings, which provides the space for each Farm Fellow and members of our Shemesh team to contribute in their own unique way and practice self-advocacy.
What is something you wish you could change about how others perceive individuals with special needs?
People with special needs and diverse abilities want the same as what we all want: to be valued and to have purpose and meaning in life. Purpose and the way it manifests itself may be different for each person, but that feeling of worth is what we all strive for. I think that people often feel sorry for individuals with special needs, and I would love to change that perception. Instead, I’d like to show people that individuals with different abilities are extremely intuitive and are our teachers — they teach us about being more present. They teach us about resilience, courage, and strength.
What has been one of your favorite moments or experiences this year with Shemesh?
This year, we evolved so much as an enterprise, and the collaboration of the Farm Fellows working together to meet our goals and hearing them express their passion and enthusiasm for their work at Shemesh was an overall favorite moment of mine. Seeing the Farm Fellows execute creative and entrepreneurial thinking and putting it into effect when they developed new slogans for our social media marketing or came up with ideas for how best to redesign our work space for organization and efficiency are examples of wonderful moments at Shemesh this year. We also celebrate our monthly financial goals together at our business meetings, and at the very end of the year we acknowledged our overall financial goals and growth of Shemesh by culminating with a dance party — it was awesome!
What inspires you about our Jewish Community?
For me, it is a privilege to work in the Jewish Community at the Shalom Institute and see how all of our partners support each other to reach our common goals and values. It is extremely inspiring to experience firsthand how the Jewish Community pays attention to the needs that have to be met in our community and beyond, and how we step up, over and over again with intention and compassion.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles provides those with special needs with greater access to quality services and programs that enhance daily living and inclusion in our community. The Los Angeles Jewish Abilities Center (LAJAC), the community resource for Jewish adults with special needs and caregivers, is an initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. This strategic response to increased communal needs was launched with support from a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. We have created an accessible platform that will empower people of all abilities and all ages to access the tools and resources they need, promote collaboration, and live meaningful, purposeful, and Jewish lives. To learn more about LAJAC, visit www.lajac.org.