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Saturday, November 16, 2019

Artists come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. If anyone can tap the hidden artistic talents of adults with disabilities, it is the staff and volunteers at the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled (JSDD) of MetroWest, Inc., and their signature Wellness Arts Enrichment (WAE) Center. Through alternative learning, with an interesting and wide variety of self-initiated programming, members are encouraged to realize their full potential.

After 15 years in West Orange, the center is about to get new, expanded space in which to work and display members’ art. The new building will be constructed at 310 Eisenhower Parkway in Livingston with the signage showing JSDD-Cooperman Family Campus. Through the generosity of Leon and Toby Cooperman, the capital campaign is in the middle of a grant-matching period for an additional half-million dollars from the Coopermans. In addition to the Coopermans, the center has received generous funding from Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, Steven and Beverly Rubenstein Charitable Foundation and many generous members of the community.

A long history exists between JSDD and the WAE Center, headed by JSDD Executive Director Linda Press. In the 1980s, a population study by United Jewish Federation of MetroWest resulted in a committee on individuals with developmental disabilities. As a result, the first kosher community group home was established in Millburn in 1989. When Press came on board in 2001, there were five homes plus a supervised apartment. Today, Press reported, there are 12 kosher sites in Essex and Morris Counties, with a capacity for 43 adult men and women residentially.

In 2001, there were 35 employees at JSDD but no day program for group home residents. With member input, after piloting programs such as yoga and meditation, the WAE Center was established. The program came to fruition with the help of a substantial grant in 2004 from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, located in Millburn, and support from the very involved 25-member board of trustees of JSDD.

In 2010, JSDD leased a larger space at Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange. Today, with 60+ regular members of the WAE Center, they have again outgrown their space. Sunday, October 6, is set as the date for the ceremonial groundbreaking in Livingston, announcing the building of the new state-of-the-art complex with the capacity to accommodate up to 100 members, with much-needed accessibility for their equipment.

The center is focused on habilitation rather than rehabilitation, Press said. “Think of [the WAE Center] as adult school.” They are not a day care; rather, they strive to give people with disabilities different opportunities. Press boasts that “the WAE Center is our signature program with no others like it anywhere. None of the similar programs are as comprehensive and holistic as the WAE Center, where we look at the members as being fulfilled on all levels.”

Press explained how the center is so much more than just visual arts. “The art,” she admitted,” is what allows them to be more visible in the community.” There is even a separate website at WAEGallery.org. Also, an established connection with the arts community allows them to regularly bring in professional artists.

What distinguishes them, Press continued, is that “this program has a staff with professional artists, and it is a dynamic program with a curriculum unheard of in this field.”

Since “most of the members never go out into the community unassisted,” said Press, “JSDD has 10 minivans, and a couple of them are wheelchair accessible.” Other members come to the WAE Center by NJ Transit’s Access Link, or have family members drop them off.

Press pointed out that six to eight times per year, the WAE Center holds juried art shows. Virtually all of the art shown is for sale. Press stated, “The arts showcases for the general community, who may not normally see beyond a disability.” She added that some pieces have sold for over $1,000. The WAE Center members get a commission on their art, with the rest of the money going toward the expenses in the art studio.

Press reiterated, “The members with developmental disabilities need to be respected and valued for what they can give the community.” “The arts,” she suggested, “give voice and confidence to people. Even the non-verbal members have a way to express themselves through art.” Press assured, “The WAE program focuses on what people can do and want to be doing. They are given a lot of autonomy to make decisions themselves on whatever level they are able to,” and Press said she’s seen a lot of growth.

Members of the WAE Center are encouraged to take a variety of classes and to try new things. They are expected to participate, with JSDD always striving to address their needs.

On Saturdays, there are monthly adaptive Shabbat services, which include a one-hour service, an hour for lunch and time for extended learning. There are also multicultural programs, which any of the members of the WAE Center can attend. The Center also has a bi-weekly chavurah.

Today, aside from over 150 paid employees, there are volunteers in the group homes and at the WAE Center. Some teach knitting and crocheting, while others teach sign language. They also have visiting artists who teach such things as pottery making and theater performance. Their program highlights include fitness and recreation with a host of activities, including book clubs, cooking classes and digital art enrichment classes.

The gift shop is brimming with an array of members’ colorful and beautifully crafted jewelry, scarves, notebooks and note cards, pens and so much more. The WAE Center has a special projects coordinator who runs the gift shop, curates their art shows and will be setting up a display gallery of members’ art when the center moves to the new location.

To learn more or donate, go to jsddmetrowest.org or call 973-272-7148 and ask for Dena.