Growing up in the 1970’s, I remember hearing the whispered words from friends and neighbors in shul.
“She has a brother,” the words would be said with a knowing look.
“He doesn’t live with the family, he is in a…,” another furtive glance to make sure no one was listening. “A home.”
Just forty years ago, disabled children were kept hidden from sight and were the subjects of hushed conversation. All that changed when a few brave parents got together to share their experiences and support each other. Rabbi Manfred Gans, spiritual leader of Congregation Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills and the father of a child with Down Syndrome, placed an ad in The Jewish Press, inviting parents of children with Down Syndrome to join him for a meeting.
“Each one thought they were the only ones in their situation because you never saw these kids out on the street,” Gwen Bloom, Director of Communications for Otsar Family Services, told The Jewish Press. “The first meeting attracted about forty people. The second drew over one hundred.”
The parent group grew into Otsar Family Services, officially launched in 1980 in order to provide support, and later programs and services for religious Jewish children with developmental disabilities.
“It was just a tiny office on Ocean Avenue, created to help parents, give them a listening ear and maybe find some programs for them,” explained Bloom, who has been with Otsar for twenty two years. “If you could refer a parent to a good doctor who could deal with their child’s needs, a good dentist, that was something useful.”
While there were services available at the time for the developmentally disabled, none met the unique needs of the Jewish community.
“Because there was no program that catered to Jewish children, these kids went to public schools and aside from not having kosher food available and learning all about Christmas, they were off every Sunday and every legal holiday, creating a tremendous hardship for their families, particularly working parents,” said Bloom. “There were respite programs for parents, but they offered very few days per year.”
Incorporating the assistance of leading professionals, Otsar created a program tailored to the specific needs of the Jewish community. While as a 501(c)(3) Otsar was a non-sectarian program and was not allowed to teach religion, the program was permitted to teach Jewish culture, finally offering the developmentally disabled a program that met their needs.
“The program was a huge success and, I believe, the first program of this type,” reported Bloom.
True to its name, Otsar soon became a valuable ally for parents who hoped to help their children make the most of their G-d given gifts, with a devoted group of professionals who worked closely with each and every client.
“Otsar’s staff believes in the value and worth of each individual, regardless of their abilities or disabilities,” explained Chashi Brand, Otsar’s Assistant Executive Director. “We are dedicated to helping our treasures live full and rewarding lives and to ultimately become active and accepted members of the community. Otsar makes a difference, one family at a time. At every age and every stage Otsar is there for families that need our assistance.”
Over the years, Otsar has evolved to meet the growing needs of the developmentally disabled community and their families and now serves over 400 families with a wide range of programs. Otsar’s clients range in age from infants who receive services in their own home, to senior citizens in their eighties.
“We want people to know that no matter what the age, we are here for them,” said Bloom.
Otsar’s Sunday and School Holiday program is one of the largest in New York City, with an organized, activity filled, stimulating program to keep children occupied. With classes including gym, baking, Movement in Motion and meticulously planned trips, children are entertained and enriched in a safe environment. Recent Sunday activities have included a visit from a magician/dentist as well as an excursion to the Great Parade in Crown Heights on Lag B’Omer.
The Sunday and School Holiday program benefits not just its one hundred and six participants but their families as well.
“Parents have a Sunday to spend with their other kids who also need their attention,” explained Bloom
In a similar vein, Otsar’s respite program provides caregivers with a break from the often challenging demands of raising a developmentally disabled child, with respite available in home or in another location, for either several hours or even several days at a time.
“Raising any kid can be exhausting,” observed Bloom. “Add in a special needs child and it can be overwhelming, particularly before the Yomim Tovim or if someone is making a simcha and just needs extra help.”
While school and camp keep children occupied for a vast majority of the calendar year, the final two weeks of summer between camp and school can be extremely taxing for parents of special needs children.
“It is hard enough finding programs for average kids, let alone when they have serious developmental issues,” said Bloom.
Enter Otsar’s Mini Day Camp, a two week program designed to entertain children in a structured environment, giving parents an opportunity to prepare for the upcoming school year. This year’s day camp program will run from August 19th through August 30th.
“We have done mini golf, horseback riding, we have done trips. This is what parents need and this is our mission,” declared Bloom.
Otsar’s senior citizen’s program began in 1985 and has been giving the older developmentally disabled population meaningful activities to fill their day.
“These people had to retire as they got older but where were they going to go?” asked Bloom. “We developed a seniors program just for them so that they would feel involved and busy. We don’t believe in warehousing people and just sitting them down in front of a video. There are projects and other activities so that everyone has a full and productive day.”
Over time, the senior program evolved into a day habilitation program.
“We had people who were in between,” said Bloom. “They couldn’t work full time, but they needed more than day care. We have them out within the community about fifty percent of the time, volunteering at a gemach, packaging foods for caterers, doing mailings for yeshivos and packing up silverware packets.”
Day hab is an integral part of Otsar’s services, providing meaningful daily activities for young adults, adults and senior citizens, with a variety of programs designed to promote personal growth and independence as well as an all- important sense of self. Every participant has a personalized development plan, designed to help each one achieve their potential and encouraging them to become vital contributing members of the community.
Otsar’s Chevra, a recently opened day hab program currently serving twelve men, gives participants the opportunity to contribute to the local community in a meaningful way while also providing them with healthy recreational outlets.
“It is a mixture of working and seeing the world,” explained Bloom. “We take them on trips and also try to get them jobs. They have helped taping boxes in Glatt Mart, cleaning shelves in a Judaica store, working for Tomchei Shabbos, Aishel Shabbat, a medical supply place and a few just started working this week in Pomegranate. We are so grateful to all of these places for giving us this opportunity, so that these men, with mild developmental disabilities, are not just sitting around. They know what it means to give back to the community and they want to give back and this gives them the ability to feel productive.”
“They need the socialization and they want to be ‘one of the guys,’” added Bloom. “They truly enjoy this weekend recreational program. We try to get them out in the community as much as we can and we are also careful to emphasize good health and nutrition.”
Bloom stressed the importance of helping each person who comes through their doors to maximize their own skills.
“We have them preparing salads, peeling their own potatoes. We try to get each person to the top of their particular skill level, because the more they can do the better opportunities they will have. We help them to do the best they can to realize their full potential.”
Otsar’s preschool program has been extremely successful according to Bloom.
“Our Early Childhood program is mostly for kids that have delays and at this age eighty percent of our students will catch up to their peers and end up in a regular school,” said Bloom. “Parents are thrilled to have their kids in our program so that the youngsters can catch up and have the chance to hopefully learn in a mainstream setting. Some of our parents have told us that they have seen improvements in their children in just three months that others had told them should take over a year.”
Demand is so high for Otsar’s preschool program that Bloom reports that there is a long waiting list for prospective students.
Despite the fact that Otsar is a multi-million dollar program, it is the warmth and personal attention that it provides to its clients that is the secret to its success.
“If you don’t understand the needs of the people in your program, it just won’t work,” explained Bloom. “We are still a mom and pop organization at heart. We are here for everyone, no matter what. If a kid isn’t being tested or getting special services, we are here. If someone is having trouble with receiving special ed or therapy, we are here to help parents navigate the system. If anyone is having trouble with their kid in any school, we want them to call our Advocacy Project. Sefard, ashkenaz, chassidic or anything else, we are here for everyone.”
For the parents of Otsar’s children, the organization is literally a gift, as they see their children thriving as a clear result of the time they spend at Otsar.
“Otsar’s dedicated staff has directly contributed to our daughter’s growth, her progress, and her happiness,” said Otsar parents Gayle and Daniel Cutler. “Her beaming smile and contagious excitement when she leaves for Otsar and when she returns home, provides us a mere glimpse of the effect Otsar’s dedicated staff has had on our Tali.”
About the Author: Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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