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Special Needs: Mission Possible – The Sequel

How do you take the seven days we experienced together in Israel last July on our Special Needs Study Mission and neatly package it for a two-hour informative and motivational presentation to the Jewish and general community? It wasn’t easy to convey all that we had shared, and how our individual and collective ideas for programs for adults with disabilities changed over the course of the Mission, but we gave it our best shot last Monday night, with a standing-room-only crowd of 130 in The Jewish Federation’s Sanders Board Room.

It was great to see so many friends and colleagues in the room, along with meeting other parents and community professionals. Given the age demographics of teens and young adults with disabilities and the expected five-fold increase in adults with autism in the next few years, it was an opportune time to tackle these issues.

Lori Klein, The Jewish Federation’s Senior Vice President for Caring for Jews in Need, welcomed everyone and talked about the Special Needs Mission in the context of Federation priorities and re-affirmed the Federation’s commitment to the issue of special needs. Then it was time for the short film, shot and edited by one of the participants, Diane Isaacs, which really captured the essence of our site visits, along with the emotions we felt at various points along the way. (Note to self: always wear makeup even if the humidity is 100 percent).

Two panels with Mission participants followed the film. Eliza Wilson, a 21-year-old young woman with autism whose deepest wish was to ride on a camel (which she did), spoke about how the Mission felt to her, with the very interesting insight that at the Kotel (Western Wall), all that praying “looked like stimming” which is repetitive body movements that self-stimulates one or more senses in a regulated manner and common in many people with autism.

Other presenters were Elaine Hall of the Vista Inspire Program at Vista Del Mar talking about the kibbutzim we visited and Soryl Markowitz, Autism/Behavior Specialist at Westside Regional Center, spoke about employment training programs and full community inclusion. I talked about advocacy, focusing on the systemic efforts by Beit Issie Shapiro to change public policy through partnering with other disability organizations. The Israelis we met weren’t waiting for government to solve the problem—they were proactively creating solutions, and then getting government to help fund programs and services.

The second panel was more future-oriented, with Mission Co-Chair Judy Mark talking about how the structure of what we are seeking to do hasn’t been determined, but as a group, the Mission participants have created post-Mission implementation goals. Steve Miller, CEO of Tierra del Sol and Valerie Vanaman, Partner at the law firm of Newman, Aaronson and Vanaman shared these goals, while also noting that the role of parents, family members and self-advocates in making things happen in California and locally has never been more important. Valerie, reflecting back on her years in the field of special education advocacy encouraged everyone to redouble their efforts in the face of many potential government funding cuts. And Steve Miller inspired us when he said, “The power to move us all forward exists in this room and among your friends.”

The mission group’s goals are:

  1. To build collaboration among the wide range of agencies and individuals who care about adults with developmental disabilities.
  2. To provide comprehensive and accurate information on currently available programs and housing for adults with developmental disabilities throughout Southern California.
  3. To support the expansion and building of new programs and housing for adults with developmental disabilities by a variety of organizations throughout Southern California.
  4. To advocate for a general increase in funding from the government, philanthropic community, corporations, and individual donors for programs and housing for individuals with developmental disabilities.
  5. To fund and conduct social science research to assess the integration, employment opportunities, current housing situation, and quality of life of adults with developmental disabilities in the Los Angeles area. Use the results of this research to advocate for programs and funding.
  6. To raise awareness and promote inclusion and tolerance of adults with developmental disabilities through the media, publications, and presentations.

There will be other opportunities for people interested in working on these projects to come together and help out.  In addition, The Jewish Federation is convening its constituents to create a plan to address the needs of young adults with special needs in the Jewish community.

If you didn’t attend the event and would like to be added to the e-mail list, or just want to learn more about the Mission and the goals of the group, please contact Adynna Swarz of The Jewish Federation at Aswarz@JewishLA.org.

Filmmaker Diane Isaacs is looking to complete a full length special on this mission.  For more information, please contact: Diane.isaacs@live.com

Read the Jewish Journal’s coverage of the event.

Michelle Wolf
Mission Co-Chair

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