Casey Diskin works with Hadley on the floor on big pillows
Casey Diskin works with Hadley/courtesy Oxford Recovery Center

Volunteer jobs with kids with special needs lead to passionate careers.

Jennifer Lovy Contributing Writer

Jessica Borin should be five months away from receiving her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan. But, instead of finishing her senior year of college, she’s taking a break from classes and applying to U-M’s occupational therapy program.

As Borin, 21, neared the end of her undergraduate studies and was more than one year into a lucrative job with an Ann Arbor-based software development company, this Walled Lake native began to think very seriously about her long-term job satisfaction if she stayed in computer engineering.

Volunteer Jessica Borin is with Allie Jacobs at Friendship Circle. They hug each other and smile.
Volunteer Jessica Borin is with Allie Jacobs. Being a Friendship Circle volunteer influenced her decision to choose occupational therapy as a career. Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

“I really like the company I work for and I like the fact that my job gives me the chance to be part of something that can improve the lives of individuals with special needs, but I’ve come to realize that being a computer engineer does not provide me with the same fulfillment I get from working directly with individuals with special needs,” said Borin, who, if accepted into an OT program, would be three or four years away from graduation.

Once Borin made up her mind about changing her career path, she sent her parents, Howie and Beth Borin, a PowerPoint presentation that included the pros and cons of both computer engineering and occupational therapy. After viewing the presentation and talking to their daughter, the Borins came to recognize the true importance of job satisfaction.

According to her parents: “If she knew she didn’t want to program computers, now would be the time to make the switch. She made the decision that a less-lucrative career with more daily satisfaction was more important to her. Not all 21-year-olds are mature enough to make this decision.

“As to changing majors this late in her academic career, it is obviously not ideal. If she had made this decision when she entered college, or even two years earlier, it would have saved probably $50,000. But, sometimes in life you can only decide to travel down one path when you have already attempted the other.”

Aside from the fact that she is changing her major, Borin is among a growing number of young adults pursuing careers in fields that provide them with the opportunity to work within the special-needs community.

Most, including Borin, credit organizations like Friendship Circle, Federation’s Opening the Doors program, the Jewish Community Center’s Special Needs Department, JARC, as well as peer mentoring and buddy programs found in many of the area’s public schools for sparking their career interests by exposing them to individuals with special needs.

Each year, Friendship Circle has approximately 500 teen volunteers working directly with kids in a variety of programs, according to Yarden Blumstein, teen director at Friendship Circle.

Last summer, the JCC employed 36 young-adult staff members to work directly with its special-needs campers, according to Stephanie Zoltowski, director of the JCC’s Special Needs Department. More than 70 percent of those hired were pursuing degrees related to working with individuals with special needs.

Through Opening the Doors, each school year, between 20 and 25 teens participate in a madrichim training program, allowing them to assist students with special needs with social and academic skills in area Sunday and Hebrew school programs. According to program director Ellen Maiseloff, so far three former madrichim subsequently took jobs with Opening the Doors.

Gaining Direction

Lexie Sittsamer, 24, has no idea what career path she would have chosen if she hadn’t volunteered through the Opening the Doors program, Friendship Circle and her middle school and high school.

“Working with individuals with special needs is truly my passion and something I really enjoy, and the interactions and relationships built with the kids and families are long-lasting,” said Sittsamer, a Farmington Hills native currently living in Milwaukee. In Wisconsin, she works as a behavior tech, providing Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy to kids on the autism spectrum. She also works at a nearby Hebrew school, supporting students with special needs.

“Having kids speak for the first time and seeing parents crying tears of joy is beyond rewarding. It really shows what a difference we can make.”
— Casey Diskin

Blumstein said that on a “semi-regular basis,” he hears from some of his former volunteers who are excited to tell him they have chosen to pursue a career in areas such as ABA, speech, occupational therapy or special education because of their experiences through Friendship Circle.

Following national trends, a growing number of young Jewish adults are choosing to work as behavior analysts, with some earning graduate-level certification as board-certified behavior analysts and providing ABA services to individuals on the autism spectrum. Simply defined, ABA is based on the idea that a desired behavior can be taught through a system of rewards and consequences.

The demand for behavior analysts has skyrocketed over the last several years. According to Burning Glass Technologies, a software company that collects and analyzes labor market data, the need for behavior analysts and assistant behavior analysts increased approximately 800 percent from 2010 to 2017; with Michigan being among the states with the highest demand.

In 2012, Michigan enacted legislation generally requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for ABA therapy to children up to age 18 with an autism diagnosis.

“The need has never been higher,” said Casey Diskin, director of ABA therapy at Oxford Recovery Center in Troy and Brighton. “In terms of special education in Michigan, our state is so far behind other states. We have a lot of students who leave school temporarily because their needs are not being met. We have good educators, but they are underpaid and overworked and many of them are tired of not being able to do everything they can to help these kids.”

Friendship Circle volunteer with Allie Jacobs in 2013 - the two look at each other and smile nose-to-nose
Friendship Circle volunteer with Allie Jacobs in 2013; Lexie is now a behavior tech. Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

As a result, teachers are leaving the school systems for better paying jobs, greater flexibility and the opportunity to work one on one and make more of an impact than they could if they remained in the school system.

Laurie Polen of West Bloomfield is a board-certified behavior analyst with Autism Home Support Services. She previously spent 10 years teaching in an autism classroom but wanted a change that would allow her greater flexibility and autonomy while still being able to work with autistic children.

What Polen, 38, especially likes about ABA is that she can help families address challenges at home or in the community on a more direct level. For example, if a child has issues surrounding eating or mealtime, she is able to work with that child in his or her natural setting.

Diskin said she isn’t surprised that a growing number of young Jewish students and professionals are headed down these career paths.

“I think the Jewish community is very supportive of the special-needs community. Beyond these organizations that provide incredible support and services, so many kids do volunteer work for mitzvah projects; and they get the opportunity to know individuals with special needs, and they find it incredibly rewarding,” she said.

Diskin also ended up in the field after volunteering with a group of campers with special needs at Camp Tanuga (owned by her family) through the Bear Hug Foundation.

“It was always my favorite week at camp,” recalled Diskin, a 32-year-old Huntington Woods resident. Diskin was 15 when she started volunteering, never realizing she would develop a passion for working with kids with special needs that would turn into a fulfilling career.

“Having kids speak for the first time and seeing the parents crying tears of joy is beyond rewarding. It really shows what a difference we can make,” said Diskin, who was proud to report that three kids receiving ABA therapy at the Oxford Recovery Center each recently uttered their first words.

Jacob Singer - man smiles at camera in button-down shirt
Jacob Singer Newsroom

Career satisfaction was a huge reason Jacob Singer, who studied pre-med as an undergraduate and attended medical school briefly, decided to go into social work.

Singer, 25, will graduate with a master’s degree in social work this month from U-M. He also credits his Friendship Circle volunteer experience — starting at age 11 — with the reason he decided to pursue a job in that field.

“I loved what I got out of it. It was fun hanging out with great kids and it didn’t seem like volunteer work, which led me to the field of social work and the desire to work with kids,” said Singer, after a recent lunch with Blumstein, whom he calls his mentor.

Blumstein said that even if past volunteers don’t go into the field directly, some take their experiences and apply what they know about the special- needs community to their chosen career paths and find ways to make other fields more inclusive to those with disabilities.

“When you introduce others to an opportunity where they can have a real experience and real contact with another human being,” he said, “it has a very deep impact. That is an integral aspect of being a part of a community.”

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