Haley McCormick-Thompson, a young adult with a developmental disability, spends part of her day transporting senior residents of United Hebrew from their rooms to their various activities throughout the day. One of the more lighthearted activities is the sing-along, where she stands at the front of a crowded room leading a group of senior residents, helping them follow along with song sheets.
“I really care about the residents,” Haley said. “I like helping them if they’re sad and I like staying late and helping. I am always willing to do extra.”
Haley is modest. Staff say she is a rock star with the residents.
Haley is an intern with Project SEARCH at United Hebrew. She has a gift for working with elderly people. She raises the spirits of these Jewish seniors.
United Hebrew is a not-for-profit multi-service senior living campus nestled on 7.4 acres in New Rochelle. It is known for its caring and nurturing environment. It provides state-of-the-art rehabilitation equipment, intimate dinners for residents and their families and Shabbat supper for Jewish residents. Residents play instruments in music therapy programs and garden in the courtyard. Project SEARCH interns make all of these programs go.
Most Project SEARCH participants are high school students with developmental disabilities who legally can sit in classrooms until they are 21. However, for students who, academically, aren’t moving much past the sixth grade by age 19, it makes a lot more sense for them to spend their last year of high school outside of the classroom. With Project SEARCH, they instead get practical work experience that will help them get a real job after school.
Nationally 70 percent to 80 percent of young adults with developmental disabilities will spend a lifetime outside of the workforce. Millions will live on government benefits, costing taxpayers billions. Often, they sit isolated on their parents’ couch until their parents can’t take care of them anymore, and then someone else takes over.
But of the 2,700 young adults with disabilities going through Project SEARCH across America today, more than 60 percent will get and retain paid work. That will, on average, save taxpayers at least $300,000 per adult with a disability who otherwise would live on government benefits. It also dramatically improves the quality of life of the person with disabilities, as most people with disabilities want to work and be included in the community.
The key to success is aligning the interests and abilities of young people with disabilities, like Haley’s talent with seniors, with real needs of employers. It also takes training and supervision, which Project SEARCH provides. Such programs have the potential to save hundreds of billions for taxpayers over time, while enhancing the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities as well as those, like the residents of the Hebrew Home, whom they serve.
Today, most Project SEARCH sites are in hospitals across America. But the partnership between this Jewish retirement home and Project SEARCH could be replicated in communities across America in a relationship that works for Jewish seniors, the young adults with disabilities, and taxpayers alike. Indeed, Project SEARCH is about to open its first program in Israel.
“With the Project SEARCH interns here, the morale of United Hebrew increases immensely,” said Donna Masi, lead teacher of Project SEARCH at the home. “They bring extra joy and love to the clients at United Hebrew.”
The harmony between the residents and the interns is clear. The interns take their time with each resident, making sure they are comfortable, getting them involved in cheerful sing-alongs, partaking and setting up art therapy, transporting them to and from their daily activities and lending an attentive ear to residents who just feel like talking.
The Project SEARCH interns are also involved with some of the clerical work at United Hebrew. They work with Maria Arminio-Dunlea, the director of medical records.
“The interns help me stay organized with shredding, filing, making copies and even help with auditing,” said Arminio-Dunlea. “They love it.”
The author and photographer met at the Jewish Funders Network ADVANCE conference, which was sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation. The author, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, is the President of RespectAbilityUSA, a non-profit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. RespectAbilityUSA was co-founded by three members of the Jewish Funders Network’s Disability Peer Network (Donn Weinberg and Shelley Cohen are the other two) – all three of which heard the photographer speak at the ADVANCE conference. The photographer, Rick Guidotti, is an award winning fashion photographer who founded POSITIVE EXPOSURE. It utilizes photography, video and narratives to present the humanity and dignity of individuals living with genetic, physical, behavioral and cognitive differences. POSITIVE EXPOSURE’s global footprint promotes a more inclusive and compassionate world where all differences are celebrated. RespectAbilityUSA and POSITIVE EXPOSURE are now collaborating together on a series of pieces about talents people with disabilities are bringing to the workplace. Both wish to thank Andrew Frank, Elise Flick and Alyssa D’Orazio of KARV communications for very significant and outstanding assistance in this project.