Inclusion programs support growth for people with disabilities

More than 1,000 people, ranging from ages 3 to 76, have participated in a series of inclusion programs, headed by Pozez JCC’s Inclusion and Disabilities Services. Guided by Jewish values of respect and empathy, the programs are part of a long-standing effort to engage people with disabilities in the Northern Virginia community, supporting their growth as they navigate different ages and stages of life.

Many have been diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or Down Syndrome. To meet participants where they are, each program is backed by research findings and staffed by experienced educators and trained volunteers. 

“Everyone brings their own unique self to come together to make all that we do so special, and to foster a sense of pride in who they are,” said Alison Pasternak, the Inclusion and Disability Program Coordinator at Pozez JCC. “Our inclusion programs are a place where people come to find acceptance, community, friendship, and fun.”

A series of social skills classes, geared for 3 to 15 year olds, focus on emotional regulation and conversation skills. Children learn by doing — everything from asking and answering questions to winning and losing to making and keeping friends to coping and calming strategies. With growth comes more confidence and independence, and of course, they have fun along the way.

The classes were created in 2008 by a team of four professionals, including Melissa Hochberg, the Resource Specialist for Pozez JCC. With her background in special education, she has been able to support children and their families in a safe, comfortable environment.

“Our participants, of all ages, need a place to feel safe and included,” Hochberg said. “Parents feel safe at the JCC because their kids are not only cared for, but they are loved.”

For those very reasons, Melissa Napoli has been bringing her daughter, Sofia, to Pozez JCC since she was 4 years old. Sofia, now 19, has participated in nearly every inclusion program, starting with social skills classes.

“The JCC programming and excellent staff have been an essential part of the infrastructure that has made Sofia who she is today,” Napoli said. “They’ve given her the confidence to successfully communicate her needs, navigate the community, and create relationships with her peers.”

Napoli said her daughter, who is very outgoing and friendly, learned to recognize facial expressions and respond to social cues, giving her a foundation of skills to better understand and respond to different situations. 

As she grew older, Sofia attended Camp Kesher, a Pozez JCC camp for neurodiverse teens and young adults. Through field trips and hands-on activities, she had the freedom to make friends and gain independence in a warm, structured space.

“Sofia has blossomed into an independent woman who advocates extremely well for herself,” Napoli said. “The best part of her growth is that she is aware of her challenges and knows she has a ‘safety net’ or infrastructure she can count on for guidance and support.” 

For Sofia and her peers, social skills classes in particular have served as a gateway to other inclusion efforts, including a group of social clubs called Going Places! Here, teenagers, young adults, and grown adults build upon their skills and make lasting connections in a low-key setting, created for their age group.

Going Places! used to meet every other month. Some days were spent bowling or mini golfing. Others involved a stroll around a mall or museum. Each outing was planned with intention, giving participants a safe space to make friends and memories. 

“Everyone needs a place to belong,” Hochberg said. “Everyone needs to have an opportunity to make friends. To try new things. To have typical experiences.”

Going Places! was co-created by Pozez JCC and Jewish Social Services Agency in 2008. Hochberg was there from the very beginning, serving as facilitator. She attended nearly every single outing, oftentimes with her husband and kids staffing alongside her. 

During her first of 15 years as facilitator, a young woman piped up after an event and said, “I have friends. I’ve never had friends before. I can’t wait two months to see them.” 

“I said, ‘Okay, we’ll meet next month then,’” Hochberg said. 

The want and need for more face time increased the number of get togethers, which have taken place once a month, sometimes more. Over the years, more people have joined Going Places!, bringing the number of regular participants from 17 to 80. 

With growth, came recognition. In 2010, Going Places! was a finalist for the Mutual of America Community Partnership Merit Award, which recognizes outstanding nonprofit organizations and their contributions to society. Participants and their families were invited to an award luncheon.

As the program has grown, the people have, too. 

“I made wonderful friends at the club,” said Valerie Maizel, a participant. “I have gained confidence, learned how to approach new people, and discovered I can enjoy communicating with them. I greatly appreciate the opportunities I have at Going Places! and the positive effect it has had on my life.”

The club has sparked real relationships, from long-term couples to lifelong friendships. 

Hochberg considers one of the biggest successes to be an ongoing hangout via Zoom, originally created to ease loneliness amid COVID-19. On Monday nights, anywhere from 20-30 people gather virtually to chat, play games, and just be there for one another. 

The group wanted to keep meeting, even after shuttered venues, face masks, and homebound days became norms of the past. So they did, with encouragement from Hochberg. She supported two participants as they learned to facilitate the hangout, and they’ve kept the momentum going.

“They did it,” Hochberg said. “They learned the leadership skills to keep this event on the calendar every week. And that’s a big win.” 

Connections have led to meaningful relationships, which continue long after participants complete inclusion programs at Pozez JCC. Even those who have moved away still make an effort to remain in touch, especially with Hochberg. 

One former participant has become a penpal, sending postcards about her new life in Montana. Others text her with life updates. And some parents still email her for resources, even if their child is no longer a child. 

“These are real relationships,” Hochberg said. “These are real friendships.”

Building Ramps… Not Stairs

If you told me that when I graduated with a degree in social work, that I would be working in the camp field, specifically at an inclusive camp, I would never have believed you.

Hi! My name is Lauren, and I work as Camp Achva’s Inclusion and Belonging Coordinator. My role has two interrelated sides – firstly, by implementing supports for the mental, emotional, social and spiritual health of every camper, staff member, and family that is a part of the Camp Achva community, and secondly, by intentionally creating a safe environment for everyone to be their most authentic self.

I bring to this work a personal perspective on sticking out, the challenges of finding spaces I belong in, and contributing to causes bigger than myself, because, like so many in our community, I am neurodiverse.

Summer camp was my place to just be…me. To show up, and be welcomed fully for who I am, not what I could or could not do. It was a space for me to move away from a diagnosis and be seen for more than my ability level.

I am so grateful that I am in a role where I get to actively help create that space for another generation of campers & staff. It is through working hand in hand with the families and individuals that I, and the Camp Achva team, serve together to create individual success plans – at Camp Achva we believe in people over programming and connection before content. We live that ideal by adjusting our entire program for the one, to better the whole – which is inspired by a training opportunity our team was a part of that talked about their belief in building a ramp instead of stairs. Everyone can use a ramp, whereas only some can use the stairs. There has been a lot of exciting work from the Camp Achva team as we prepare for our best summer yet!

In a practical example of this work, our team has been discussing the length of our activities and how time affects learning outcomes and skill development. Our team has been discussing whether we should move from 30-minute activities to 35- or 40-minute activities. We are looking to adequately balance the need for an activity time length that holds camper and staff’s attention for duration and the number of activities everyone experiences in a day, with giving enough time to build skills and explicitly engage in conversations about what campers are learning. We see benefits of both and are continuing to weigh the pros and cons of each side.

We are working to improve our lunch programming as well – this is a time our campers and staff have given us feedback about, and so we are examining how to make lunch more like a ramp than the stairs it currently feels like to many. Lunch can be overwhelming! To some of our community, lunch feels loud, unstructured, and socially uncomfortable. To others, they feel perfectly in place, with lunch feeling structured and comforting. Our team is working on providing a structure that meets everyone’s needs with ideas from – camp trivia to weather reports, conversation starters to jokes, riddles, and word puzzles.

I am excited to continue these discussions and many others I get to be a part of through my work as the Inclusion & Belonging Coordinator of Camp Achva. I am so grateful for the work that I do. In this past year working with Camp Achva and for the Pozez JCC, I have learned that inclusion is not a choice, it is a lifestyle. I am working to make all the spaces that I am a part of inclusive.

While written in a different context, a quote that I have come to appreciate, rely on, and sums up my inclusion and belonging work is from Ijeoma Oluo: “every time you go through something, and it’s easy for you, look around and say ‘Who is this not easy for? And what can I do to dismantle that system?’”

ReelAbilities Film Festival: Community partnerships, stigma-smashing film, and fine art

The 2024 festival will open at the J and close at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts at the REACH’s Justice Forum. As per festival tradition encouraging accessibility for all, the films will be screened by partner venues throughout the region.

“These partnerships have been a cornerstone of the festival’s success since day one, eleven years ago,” says the festival’s director, Sarah Berry. “When we moved the festival to February  in commemoration of Jewish Disabilities Inclusion and Awareness Month, many of the local synagogues became participating venues.”

This year, half of the venues are synagogues, and the other half are a combination of arts organizations and direct service organizations. “It’s a privilege to work as a presenting partner with these organizations, we are all driven by similar missions of access, culture, and community,” Berry adds.

This year, our partners include Beth El Hebrew Congregation with Agudas Achim, Congregation Adat Reyim, Congregation Olam Tikvah, Down Syndrome Association of Northern Virginia, Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, Reston Community Center’s CenterStage, ServiceSource, Temple Rodef Shalom, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The J is hosting the opening night screening, with attendee groups including Hadassah and Our Stomping Ground.

Not able to travel around town? No problem. ReelAbilities Northern Virginia will continue to make all films in the festival available to stream online. The lineup is comprised of contemporary international films, complemented by post-film programs, and an exhibit in the J’s Bodzin Art Gallery. For a full listing of events, visit

To screen the festival online, create an account at

Join us opening night!

We are excited to invite the community for a full program celebrating the arts on opening night. The evening includes a suite of short films celebrating creativity: films will cover topics such as art, entrepreneurship, comedy, filmmaking, and theater, allowing us glimpses into the lives of creatives in these fields, and how they make their art and dreams happen. The films will be followed by a Q&A with Anne Schlachter-Dagan, a local, legally blind painter.

Schlachter-Dagan’s exhibition, Bright Darkness, is now on view at the J’s Bodzin Art Gallery through March 6, offering viewers a glimpse into her personal experiences and highlighting the difficulties she encounters in perceiving light and color.

ReelAbilities Film Festival: Northern Virginia aims to shine light on the lives, stories, and artistic expressions of people with disabilities. Each film selected for the 2024 festival was done so with care by a committee of screeners, as well as each presenting venue. Thought was put into the quality of the films, the messaging, and the goal of each event. Heartfelt thanks for your time, committee members: Harold Belkowitz, LaRue Cook, Joan Ehrlich, Rachel Greenblatt, Dawn Kaye, Nancy Reder, Bill Rosen, BoMi Rosen, Michael Toobin, Charlotte Woodward, and Darcy Woodward.

We look forward to sharing these stigma-smashing films with our community, both in-person and virtually. Reserve your seats now at