They were lined up in seats. One at a time they stood up, took a microphone, introduced themselves -- their name, their job--and then ended with "I am JCHAI." It was a deeply moving series of moments, and during parts of it tears of joy were coming out of my eyes. So what was it, and why did I find it so powerful?
Fully one-in-five Americans have a disability. Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. There are mental health differences and physical differences. There are differences in the ability to process social information, and to deal with sound and sensory issues. But for the people of JCHAI, what binds most of them is that they have an intellectual disability. Because of that, they frequently have been viewed by others through the eyes of pity or low expectations for their entire lives. But each of them is equal to all of us. They are different, but not less. So I was deeply moved when at a JCHAI gala, a group of them took to the stage to proudly introduce themselves, the terrific jobs they have, and to show solidarity with each other. Many of them have decades of proven job experience.
JCHAI is a play on words, as it has a double meaning. It actually stands for the Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence ("JCHAI"), founded in 1987. Judith Creed is the proud mother of three amazing (now grown) children, one of whom happens to have disabilities. She and other parents of then young adult children with disabilities created JCHAI as a place for their adult children to live. But "Chai" is Hebrew for "life" and J is often an abbreviation for Jewish. And JCHAI, which started by offering supportive housing for Jews with disabilities, is indeed full of life.
Today JCHAI is a non-sectarian agency that provides independent living supports and job matching for individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism. JCHAI has a thriving supportive apartment program as well as a program providing independent living services to individuals living in their own residences throughout the greater Philadelphia area.
JCHAI now serves more than 100 people with disabilities. It is a winning example of how an existing organization that started 25 years ago providing services to adults with disabilities under the "old" model of group homes can transition to a new model of community inclusion to give its "clients" the supports they need to become more independent, happy and successful. JCHAI clients now mostly live in their own homes and apartments and still feel really like a family, and everyone involved in JCHAI treats each other as such.
"Employment First" thinking and actions are a key part of that dramatic positive transformation. JCHAI members take travel training for public transportation, computer as well as cooking, financial and time management classes; they go to swim events, share Shabbat dinners, travel to great destinations, and support each other fully. JCHAI staff maintains contact with employers so that if there are any situations that arise where the employer may need some help with the JCHAI member/employee, JCHAI staff will offer job coaching or other assistance. 70% of JCHAI clients who want employment have at least part time competitive, integrated employment. Given that the national average of employment for people with disabilities is 34%, JCHAI is maintaining a rate of employment that is double the national average.
JCHAI also has developed a number of training opportunities for its members to help them build employable skills and resumes while they seek employment. For example, they have a volunteer program with a local school where JCHAI members make and serve lunch to the elementary students; JCHAI members also go to other nonprofit organizations to help with office tasks These programs have helped to train JCHAI members in how to succeed in various workspaces.
JCHAI members are proud of their ability to get and maintain paid employment. Receiving a paycheck is a great day for all the members, and their families are thrilled by their accomplishments as well. One JCHAI member who works at Jefferson University, Jonah Selber, has been there successfully for two decades. His mother is actually Judith Creed, the dynamo who started JCHAI and chairs it today.
The more that JCHAI members are working in the community, the more that the community is aware of the success of people with disabilities in the workplace. JCHAI's CEO, Stacy Levitan, is constantly bringing new ideas and innovations to JCHAI. Now they are even working on robotics with Lockheed Martin!
JCHAI is presently fundraising to build an educational/social facility tailored to the needs of people with disabilities. This state of the art building will provide opportunities for JCHAI clients to receive more vocational training and social opportunities.
JCHAI well deserves national recognition, as do its leaders. Many residential providers in the nation are trapped in the models of group homes and sheltered workshops. JCHAI has developed a model with a diversity of residential settings and job skill training so that people with disabilities can have choices, jobs, dignity, and independence.