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NEO groups help those with disabilities, dispel stereotypes

Posted February 21, 2019 in Articles

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and in Greater Cleveland, Bellefaire JCB, Friendship Circle of Cleveland and Milestones Autism Resources all work to enhance the lives of children with differences and increase inclusion.

For JDAIM, the Cleveland Jewish News talked with the organizations about how they serve those with disabilities, particularly those with autism.

Friendship Circle of Cleveland, an affiliate of Chabad, matches teen volunteers with child and teen participants. The pairs form relationships by doing activities together at Friendship Circle’s Pepper Pike campus. It also offers families of Jewish children with special needs in-home visits from teen volunteers.

Rena Wertheim, program director for Friendship Circle, said the organization works with children with a range of challenges via after-school programming, Sunday afternoon programs, winter camp and summer camp that bridges the time between the regular summer camp season and the school year.

On Feb. 18, Friendship Circle hosted one of its Monday fun days, during which Jewish teen volunteers interacted with children ages 5 and up using speech or sign language.

“They really have formed some really sweet friendships,” Wertheim said. “You’ll see a lot of hugs and happiness and glad-to-be-togetherness.”

On that day, children moved from room to room for sensory activities, movement, and arts and crafts.

Friendship Circle provides respite to families and engagement and bonding for children with challenges. It also helps teens, who may begin volunteering in eighth grade.

Rena Berkowitz, 13, an eighth grader at Mandel JDS, was signing with 13-year-old Jack Lovinger, who lives in Cleveland Heights and attends Beachwood Middle School. Rena learned American Sign Language through a month-long program at Friendship Circle offered by an instructor from Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center.

In the fall of 2018, Friendship Circle opened a multisensory experience room named for Ben Miller, who donated funding for the equipment as his bar mitzvah project. The room was a popular venue Feb. 18, with children chasing a computerized image of a soccer ball on a floor-sized screen.

Other activities that day included moving about in inflatable bounce houses and using shaving cream and color to create art.

Wertheim said she hopes teen volunteers will stand up to bullying as a result of their exposure and education with children facing challenges.

“They have the compassion and the knowledge,” she said, adding she hopes they will vote for school levies that support programming for children who need special services.

Friendship Circle of Cleveland was started by Rabbi Yossi Marozov and his wife, Estie, in the basement of their synagogue. It is now housed at 27900 Gates Mills Blvd. in a former church and synagogue.


Bellefaire JCB, which began as Cleveland’s Jewish orphanage, provides a variety of behavioral health, substance abuse, education and prevention services to about 30,000 area children and families.

At the September 2018 groundbreaking for the Bluestone Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital, Bellefaire began the public and final portion of a $12 million capital campaign to build the 12-bed hospital, expand the Monarch Center for Autism, create the Wuliger Family Wellness Center and complete infrastructure improvements to the Shaker Heights/University Heights campus.

At the time, Bellefaire had already raised $10.9 million in a quiet campaign that started in 2014. As of Feb. 19, Bellefaire has raised $11.2 million.

Beth Pollack, director of organizational advancement at Bellefaire, said the wellness center offers medical and dental care, speech and occupational therapy, and a hair salon for individuals with autism and other special needs. The wellness center has two medical exam rooms, two dental suites and space for psychiatry and speech, physical and occupational therapy, she said.

“Getting a haircut or any kind of personal hygiene can be very, very difficult for that population,” Pollack said. “Every single room has been outfitted with a unique lighting system that allows the room to be personalized for each individual.”

The medical exam room also has a bean bag chair.

“For some of the individuals we serve, it is a lot less intimidating to sit in the bean bag chair than it is on an exam table,” she said.

Exam rooms will be larger than standard size, partly to accommodate the presence of a personal caregiver. Rather than having a central waiting room, there will be smaller waiting rooms in between the exam rooms.

“They’re integrated waiting rooms rather than that large communal area,” Pollack said.

Once it is up and running, the psychiatric hospital will add beds for children and adolescents in Cuyahoga County, which has just 25 beds available

for that population and that aren’t well-equipped for all, Pollack said.

“Over 70 percent of children on the autism spectrum also have a mental health diagnosis,” she said. “None of the 25 beds that exist in Cuyahoga County currently is equipped to serve them and does not serve them. There’s no place for them to go.”

The hospital will be for short stays, typically three to five days, Pollack said. Construction is scheduled to finish this fall and an opening is planned for December.

Bellefaire also renovated its main school for students with autism ages 14 to 22 in the Monarch Transition Education program and Monarch High School as part of the capital campaign.

“The renovations enabled us to incorporate specific design elements so that it’s an educational environment for students with autism,” Pollack said. “We have sensory rooms. We have visual supports and integrated technology.”

The Monarch School was initially designed for 56 students with autism ages

5 to 22. The school now has 170 students, and the renovation will allow programming for older students in a separate building.


Milestones Autism Resources provides education to children and adults with autism, including in-person consultations for people with autism and their caregivers and service providers, and online resources.

“The core of our mission is to make sure that we’re supporting all of the people that are involved in the autism community,” said Beth Thompson, program director at Milestones. “And the calendar and our Helpdesk is one way we can connect people to the best resources that we’re aware of.”

Last year, 1,200 people attended its national conference, and 600 people used its Helpdesk or consultation services.

“We also offer consultations for agencies as well,” Thompson said. “An example of that would be a large hospital care system here was having problems with their patients on the spectrum, so we provided consultation services so they could define a better process and structure for how they were admitting and dealing with patients with autism.”

Thompson said the Warrensville Heights-based organization does a thorough job of vetting the resources it recommends to ensure each is evidence-based. Applied Behavioral Analysis is the most common form of intervention offered to children in Ohio, Thompson said, and it has a proven track record.

“Once you address the cause, then you can address the response,” she said. “Punishment isn’t really an aspect of ABA.”

Thompson said the intervention focuses on being additive.

“Every time you do something, you’re always adding something as opposed to removing it,” she said.

Thompson said there are many myths about autism, which the organization works to dispel.

“I have a lot of self-advocates, and some staff here that are on the spectrum,” she said. “One of the (myths) they tell me all the time ... is people with autism (have a) lack of empathy or sympathy. Actually, clients and self-advocates report that they have an overabundance of empathy (and) sympathy for others. They might have difficulty understanding how to communicate that.”

Another common myth is people with autism experience a limited range of emotions. Not true, said Thompson. In fact, she said, their experience of emotion can be more intense than those who are neurotypical.

“In line with that, most of my self-advocates say there is a misconception that they don’t like to be touched or hugged when, really, it’s just a different sensory (experience),” she said. “When Hanes decided to go with the tagless shirts, that was not for somebody on the spectrum. That was just for neurotypical people that were bothered by that sensory feeling of the tag. It’s really the same equivalent for people on the spectrum. They may not like soft touch, they may not like hard touch, but I’ve never met a self-advocate who doesn’t like any form of touch.”

She said it is also a myth to believe that Savant syndrome and autism go together.

Finally, autism is not limited to any particular gender or demographic.

“It really cuts across the lines,” Thompson said.

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