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Building ‘Kehillah’: JCC makes special needs programming a priority

The Kehhillah program offers varied classes like this cheerleading group.

By Stacey Dresner ~

Linda LaPointe tells the story of a young child with special needs who had a rough time when he first began to take adaptive aquatics classes at the Springfield Jewish Community Center.
“When he first came here three years ago he had a lot of sensory issues and would yell and scream in the pool. He couldn’t swim and would have to have 20 floating devices on to feel comfortable,” recalled LaPointe, the coordinator of the JCC’s “Kehillah” special needs program.

The Adaptive Aquatics class is one of the most popular offerings of the Kehillah program.

When LaPointe recently stopped by the JCC swimming pool , that same child who pitched a fit in the pool three years ago, was like a fish in the water. “He was jumping off the diving block and yelling, ‘Linda, watch!’ I said, this is incredible!”
It is this kind of inspirational story that has made the Kehillah program at the JCC such a success.
Kehillah, or “community” in Hebrew, was launched in 2006 – through the generosity of Alissa and Steven Korn – to provide high-quality, social, recreational, and enrichment programs to children and young adults with special needs. One of the goals of the Korns was to develop a program that fosters independence, builds self-esteem and cultivates meaningful relationships.
In just five years, the Kehillah program has helped 327 children and teens learn to swim through adaptive aquatics. Nearly 200 children have learned to bike through Project RIDE and more than 100 have taken part in musical programming. Additionally, about 150 young adults have taken part in an annual New Year’s Eve party which is sponsored by Kehillah.
Alissa and Steven Korn have a personal stake in the Kehillah program. Their younger daughter, Jillian has special needs.
Several years ago, the JCC’s Michael Paysnick pitched the idea for a larger special needs program at the JCC to the Korns.
“The fact of the matter is that the JCC did not do any special needs programming,” said Maysnick, now executive director of the Center. We started the JCC InFund, an endowment program for the JCC, which had some capital needs built in and as we were putting together that fundraising effort there were a couple of program thoughts that we had in terms of new initiatives. One of them was programming
for kids with special needs. We made a pitch to Alissa and Steve for helping us get this program underway.”
The Korns were quickly on board – making a gift to the endowment fund for the program – since they already had concerns about the lack of special needs programming in the Springfield area.
“My older daughter was able to go to different classes – participate in cooking class and gymnastics, and she played tennis,” Alissa recalled. “We thought, ‘Why can’t Jillian have the same opportunities Rachel has?’”
The JCC soon started a special needs music and movement class with about six kids. “It was great because it was an opportunity for parents to meet one another and connect,” Paysnick said. “It was almost like respite care for them while their kids were participating in a program, and their kids were having a good time as well.”
Alissa Korn got busy researching special needs programming at other Jewish community centers. “Other JCCs had amazing programs. I looked at Manhattan, Detroit, and Boca has a great program.. I took it to Michael Paysnick and said, ‘I really would like to do this…We already seemed to have what it took in terms of a physical space and a desire that Michael had – the same desire we had to really make this happen.”
Alissa and Steven funded the program through the Sadye Silver Endowment Fund, named for Steven’s late grandmother and she suggested to Paysnick that they apply for a matching grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which they did. A special needs coorindator was hired and a special needs committee was established to help strategize what was needed for the program, which the Korns continued to spearhead.
The program began to grow, but Alissa, the daughter of philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, was anxious to reach higher. “It was never enough, I wanted to do more and more,” she said. “I thought, ‘What is one class, we need more classes.’” Alissa explained. “And I thought, we needed classes not just for young children but older children – we needed programs for young adults. So it really stemmed from my own personal issues and then it really grew when I saw that there were really no afternoon enrichment activities for kids with special needs.”

Recreation and Enrichment

Today, the JCC’s special needs program provides recreation and enrichment programs for children through adults – children from 3 or 4 (depending on the support they need) up to individuals in their 40s. The program provides afterschool programs into the early evening as well as weekend programs.
Kehillah includes “Kids Kehillah” which is programming for elementary and beginning middle school students, and “Teen Kehilah” for teens and young adults. Different classes are offered daily after school for Kehillah participants, with a variety of separate classes designed for both younger and older students.
On Mondays the program offers is group exercise doing step work, mat work and weights.
“All of these classes are modified or adapted in a way for the kids to do things any other kid would do,” LaPointe said.

The Teen and Young Adult Social Skills class at the JCC.

On Tuesdays Kehillah offers a social club and the kids go out into the community to make friends and work on social skills. On Wednesdays, the program offers basketball, a dance class, and drum lessons. On Thursdays, participants can take yoga, cooking, piano lessons, and music therapy classes. On Friday afternoons, the program offers adaptive aquatics, and on Sundays, they can take a karate class.
Kehillah also offers a reading club with a reading specialist, and a social group for kids who use communication devices, staffed by two speech therapists and interns from the University of Massachusetts School of Speech and Disorders program.
“We have just as many programs as the Center has for typical kids,” said LaPointe. “We do have smaller classes, they will be attended by anywhere from six to 12 and sometimes even more. But it is a small class structure, and we have a lot of options for families to choose from. These options change based on the season and based on what the interest is. We’ll do indoor soccer skills in the winter, so the programs will change as the seasons go by and by what the interests of the families and kids are.”
LaPointe is the only staff member of Kehillah, but she is aided by highly-qualified special needs educators and volunteers.
“The teacher who does basketball and group exercise has her masters in adaptive physical education and is a certified trainer. Our music therapist is a certified music therapist… we have highly qualified instructors and I think that has made the difference in our program. The teachers really understand how to work with these kids.”
There is a fee for the classes, but LaPointe said they provide scholarships and offer payment plans, and work with 10 different social service agencies to help families who need it. “The state keeps reducing the amount of money that goes to family support so as that gets reduced and as the economy is so difficult we have more and more scholarships. The first year I was here, we maybe got 20 requests the whole year and now I get over 20 requests per session,” she said.  The money raised at the fundraiser will go toward scholarships and increasing the amount of programming for young adults with special needs.
About a year ago, Rachel Korn, Alyssa and Steve’s older daughter had the idea to put together a program called “Friends Next Door” bringing Jewish teens together with teens with special needs. That program began at Temple Beth El, but was moved to the JCC to provide more space and support.
Twenty teens participated last year – half with special needs and half typically developing teens – and ran events once a month where they played kickball, made pizza and sang karaoke, or participated in community service events like packaging gifts for “Adopt A Family” or volunteered for the JCC’s Purim party.
Due to its success, the teen group was approached by “Best Buddies,” a national organization to become a part of their group. Rachel Korn is now the president of the local “Best Buddies” chapter.
“Best Buddies” is open to teens of all faiths, but the local board of the organization is composed of local Jewish teens.
Last month, Alissa and Steven Korn were honored by the JCC for all that they have done for the Kehillah program at an event also celebrating the program’s 5th year.  Both Paysnick and LaPointe lauded the Korns about their hard work and dedication to the program.
“Alyssa and Steve aren’t just funders. They are at all Project Ride events, whether they are riding with their daughter, or helping to set it up. They get in and do the work,” LaPointe said. “They hear the community, they offer suggestions, they listen to what I say and what the parents say. They are really easy to work with and are very supportive and they really want this to be whatever the community needs. They want the JCC to be somewhere where people come in and regardless of their abilities feel welcome and that this is a community willing to embrace them and give them the opportunity to be just like anybody else.”
“A lot of people will give you their money and say, ‘You do it.’ But Steve and Alissa wanted to get involved,” Paysnick said. “They have continued to spearhead this and continue to fund us beyond what the initial grant was, as did HGF. Their vision, which is our vision, is to continue to service the needs, and the need exists. There aren’t a lot of peole doing the stuff we do.”
Around $100,000 was raised at the October reception, $50,000 from the event plus a matching grant from the Korns, to be used  to provide scholarships for students. The program is experiencing an increase in requests for financial aid. Last year alone, 206 students received scholarships.
“We are on this big expansion, and we are very lucky that this fundraiser was so successful,” LaPointe said. “We really are going to be able to keep expanding…It is really exciting for us and will allow us to do a lot more.”
The money will also be used to add more programs for  older individuals with special needs.
“Our goal is to grow the adult program,” Alissa said. “Now we have lots of  programs for young children and teenagers but we are not serving the 20 to 30 year old population as well as I would like to do. We just had this fundraiser and the money from that will go to hire a part-time individual who will work on that exclusively.”
But the larger goal of everyone involved is to continue to provide a safe haven where children, teens and young adults with special needs can feel welcome and appreciated.
“I have so many friends whose kids have special needs who find that the JCC is the spot where they can go and drop their child off and their child can be independent. For example, they can go to their classes, go buy a drink, buy a snack, feel safe there. That is the whole notion of the JCC. They are wonderful about being open and welcoming.”

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