Caring for a child or young adult with physical or mental challenges means negotiating a world geared primarily for a differently-abled majority. So where do you start in locating a therapist, a school for a child with learning disabilities, a supervised social environment, or simply a salon to give a fidgety child a haircut?
Allison Wexler is addressing these and many other concerns in her newly created position of special needs coordinator at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Wexler has a master’s degree in education from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a background working for nonprofits, and is the mother of a 16-year-old daughter with special needs. The position is funded through the Jewish Community Foundation and Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona aligned grant process, including a budget for activities for youngsters with special needs.
“It’s an honor to be part of the community that serves our families who struggle in some way and want access to more resources,” says Wexler. She loves seeking out solutions to individual concerns. “I research it, then I connect the person with a suitable group. If their child has had trouble fitting into early childhood life, we bring her into the community.”
The momentum that led to Wexler’s appointment came partly from a Jewish support group for moms and grandmothers of children with special needs. Joyce Stuehringer, who has an adult son with special needs, helped start the group in February 2013. As members interacted, some shared concerns emerged.
“There was a general feeling that their children or young adults were not being included in the Jewish community,” says Stuehringer. She and others began to explore ways to more fully integrate them into Tucson Jewish life.
In 2014, in response to an increasing call for more special-needs services the Federation created a task force for individuals with special needs, co-chaired by Stuehringer and Liz Kanter Groskind. Foundation CEO Tracy Salkowitz then met with directors of JFSA beneficiary agencies and a group of concerned and involved parents to discuss the path forward.
Funded by a grant from the JFSA, the task force sent out a community survey to assess needs. The survey results indicated a strong need for more special-needs programs and services. “We realized that a coordinator would be needed to oversee program development and assess ongoing needs,” says Stuehringer.
“I’m excited,” says Wexler. “The special needs initiative has helped to increase awareness of special needs in our community and helped make it a priority.”
Rina Liebeskind, director of education at the Congregation Or Chadash religious school, is a member of the special needs task force. Religious school students with special needs, from kindergarten through Tucson Hebrew High, are supported by funding from JFSA, she says. However, “It’s after high school that our community is not set up to offer sufficient services for those with special needs. … It motivated me to volunteer on the task force and get involved in creating resources to care for our own as they grow older. With Allison at the helm, I believe we can and will make things happen for our community.”
Making a difference
Wexler hit the ground running with a fundraising luncheon on April 12 to raise community awareness. Comedian and special needs advocate Pamela Schuller, who has Tourette syndrome, spoke at the event. Kanter Groskind’s 19-year-old daughter, Hattie, also spoke, sharing her experiences as a person with special needs.
With help from special needs task force members and interested families, Wexler has created a resource directory of medical providers and other services. One mom has a 5-year-old daughter with extreme allergies, says Wexler. “She found a small Tucson Jewish Montessori preschool, Darkaynu, that would accommodate her child’s allergies. She told us about it, and it’s now listed in the directory.”
Additionally, a new online forum, “Jewish Tucson Special Needs Families,” allows members to interact electronically, sharing questions and concerns. It includes a calendar of events, topical articles and a solution-oriented chat room.
The possibility of building a residential facility for adults with special needs is also currently being explored, says Wexler.
Scheduled activities began on June 4, with a “game day” at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. Members of the Sparks club, a group of youngsters with special needs, connected with seniors as they played favorite board games. “We hope to make it a monthly volunteer activity,” says Wexler. “We’ll also be providing social activities throughout the year, serving a variety of ages and abilities.”
A Sparks Club launch party will be held at the JCC on June 25 from 2-5 p.m., with a nominal charge to cover refreshments. Trained staff will supervise, providing respite for families, who may drop their children off for the afternoon. As well as swimming and activities for ages 4-12 and young adults, planned activities include therapy dogs for children to read to, a drumming group that works with children with processing challenges, and puppies and friendly goats to pet.
The social events will help youngsters with special needs to integrate with the Jewish community, says Stuehringer. “Many adults with special needs don’t have friends; they’re different, and they function differently. The JCC has produced an incredible program – there’s nothing like it.”
To contact Wexler or join the online forum, call 299-3000, ext. 203, or email [email protected]
Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.