JCC Taglit program is rewarding for participants, staff

Mark Frederick (left) and Brandon Katz participate in a weekly art class at the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s Taglit program. (Photo: Travis Fischer)
Mark Frederick (left) and Brandon Katz participate in a weekly art class at the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s Taglit program. (Photo: Travis Fischer)

Participants in the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s Taglit program for young adults have a wide range of disabilities, both cognitive and physical. Still, the special needs program offers an extensive schedule of daily activities for the program’s 20 full-time participants, ages 19 to 35. Whether it’s yoga, karate, fitness or art classes, participants like Mark Frederick, 20, and Brandon Katz, 30, deem the program “awesome.”

“Our mission is to provide a full program designed to explore, cultivate and maximize each individual’s potential while emphasizing wellness, social action, education and fun,” says Kristin Taft, director of special needs services.

The Taglit program has grown from three participants when it started five years ago, to 23 in May when it will gain three newcomers. “We’re maxed out,” says Taft. “Some [young adults] joined because they’re already J members and have gone through other programs here.” The JCC also serves those with special needs in early childhood education as young as age 2, in an after-school inclusion program for kindergarten through middle school and in summer programs for students through high-school age.

The 12 males and eight females currently in the Taglit day program are high school graduates. Some were mainstreamed with individual aides in regular classes, and some stayed in separate classrooms.

“The families are very supportive. Having that encouragement helps keep me going,” Taft told the AJP, adding that she and her staff always try to be creative, offering new activities.

“Something is happening here that’s really neat,” she says. For the first time, this spring Taglit participants will plant a garden. “One section in the front of the building will be with flowers for beautification. There will be a community vegetable garden in the back of the building. We’re hoping businesses will donate supplies and that gardeners will volunteer to share their expertise, with us all working together.”

JCC instructor Maralyn Goldstein teaches yoga classes for the Taglit program twice weekly. She also discusses “mindful eating” habits with program members, says Taft. “She’s really connected to the participants.” Goldstein is a recreation therapist with a master’s degree from Springfield College in Massachusetts. Since the 1970s, she’s had extensive experience working with the developmentally disabled.

Goldstein started teaching yoga to Taglit participants four years ago. When parents come to watch the classes “they can’t believe the progress their [adult] children have made,” she told the AJP. “I can see them becoming more in tune with their body, mind and spirit, and parents tell me this too.”

The program used to have a Spanish language teacher, notes Taft, adding that there is a volunteer who leads a sign language class.

“I really like it here. I love karate,” says Frederick, who also attends a karate class outside of the JCC. “I learn lots of cool moves.”

Field trips are a vital part of the Taglit program, says full-time advocate Travis Fischer. “Every other day we’re out in the community.” The group recently went for a hike and picnic in Sabino Canyon and also attended the rodeo parade. An important part of the program, he notes, is volunteering in the wider Tucson community, which helps to improve participants’ social skills.

“There’s so much need for this kind of work,” says Taft, 29, who has a master’s degree in education and worked in a residential program prior to coming to the JCC nine months ago. “Both my parents are Arizona educators. It’s gratifying work,” she says, adding, “I’m always looking for additional summer staff, back-up staff, tutors or volunteers, anyone who wants to come work with us, or those who can teach special workshops.”

Fischer, 33, who has been with Taglit for five years, expresses similar appreciation for the program. “Seeing the specific progression of [individual] participants, promoting their independence, is phenomenal. We’ve created an atmosphere like a family,” he says. “Having a great staff is important in this field where people come and go. It’s a humbling experience.”