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.”

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