Celebrating with the Spirit of Detroit – pre-pandemic.
Celebrating with the Spirit of Detroit – pre-pandemic. (Lizz Cardwell)

The JCC of Metro Detroit’s two departments — the Special Needs Department and Opening the Doors — work toward providing a world of activities, education, inclusion and friendship, with curated and highly trained staff.

Include. Empower. Educate. The year-round motto of the JCC’s Special Needs Department is particularly auspicious this month, as February is Jewish Disability Advocacy and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). This initiative, powered by the Jewish Federations of North America, shines a spotlight on education, solidarity-building and empowerment in support of people with special needs.

In the midst of a pandemic, advocacy and solidarity have never been more crucial. We are fortunate to live in a community with a JCC that is blazing trails for these families, providing much needed resources both in the classroom and out in the world.

The JCC of Metro Detroit has two departments — the Special Needs Department and Opening the Doors — that work toward that goal year-round, providing a world of activities, education, inclusion and friendship, with curated and highly trained staff.

“There is an urgent need to provide consistent learning, and social and emotional support, especially during these uncertain times, to children with diverse needs and abilities,” says Ellen Maiseloff, senior director of Opening the Doors. “We want them to continue to be included and engaged successfully in their Jewish education classrooms, whether virtual or in-person, along with opportunities to interact with their peers.”

The JCC of Metro Detroit’s Special Needs Department, led by Director Dr. Stephanie Zoltowski, offers year-round activities for kids through adulthood, including social groups, JCC Day Camps summer camp, break camps, physical activity, family fests and more.

“Our main approach is community inclusion and holistic services,” Zoltowski says. “We look at the whole family from every angle — the child with special needs, programs that help the parents, activities for siblings. We help them at school, we support and encourage mental health and independence. We try to cover all the bases.”

In addition to summer camp, Special Needs offers year-round social groups, yoga classes and Drums Alive fitness classes. About 20 JARC homes bring residents of all ages to a Thursday Night Social Group. Even during the pandemic, Zoltowski and her team made sure their participants stayed active.

Since the 1960s, Thursday Night Social Group has provided a wide variety of opportunities for social interaction on and off campus.
Since the 1960s, Thursday Night Social Group has provided a wide variety of opportunities for social interaction on and off campus. Lizz Cardwell

“We’ve tried to support all of our families. All of the parents have my cell phone, we have a Facebook group; I did some Zoom calls with campers who were having trouble understanding why we couldn’t have camp last summer,” she says.

“We even held a socially distant Sunday Funday in my backyard last summer, with lots of different activities. And we have Break Camp coming up in March. We try to be a resource for families as much as we can.”

New in 2019, Zoltowski partnered with Jewish Senior Life, which provided a furnished apartment at Meer Apartments to help young adults practice independent living skills in a safe and supervised environment. Participants were able to practice skills ranging from finding their apartment to washing clothes, changing sheets and preparing food.

“It’s a place where we can go to learn to do things hands-on, for students of all abilities.”

In celebration of JDAIM, the Special Needs Department hosted a virtual and interactive Magic Show fundraiser on Feb. 11 — all participants needed was a deck of cards at home to participate in some of the magic tricks. The show was interspersed with videos of families telling how the department has benefitted them.

“It was our chance to see our families, and have them see us, while showing the community what we’re all about and highlighting what our families and our staff love about our program.”

Opening the Doors

Also available through the JCC, Opening the Doors (OTD) has a mission of providing every student the chance to receive a fully inclusive Jewish education — even during the pandemic. This year, 1,200 students ages 2½-17 are benefitting from it.

To accomplish this, OTD provides all 26 Metro Detroit Jewish preschools, day schools and congregations with master special educators, who provide support to parents, offer strategies to teachers and lead workshops.

Additionally, OTD offers para-educators in early childhood classrooms who provide short-term intervention for high-risk students. OTD makes it possible for special needs students to be in schools with other students and siblings. While students increase confidence and build Jewish identity, barriers are broken down between their peers, who are then learning acceptance, diversity and tolerance. And all of this is provided free of charge.

Young adults practice independent living skills in a safe and supervised environment at Meer Apartments in West Bloomfield.
Young adults practice independent living skills in a safe and supervised environment at Meer Apartments in West Bloomfield. Lizz Cardwell

OTD also provides an enormous variety of programming for families, madrichim leadership for religious school teens, conferences with speakers, workshops and professional development open to the community. Maiseloff often partners with community resources such as JVS, JARC and Friendship Circle, mental health professionals and more.

During the pandemic, Maiseloff and her team are working more diligently, knowing how difficult this time is for some of the students to understand and cope.

“Since August, at the start of the school year, Opening the Doors has been proud to have the capacity and support to continue to provide an array of high quality, diversified programs and services, in collaboration with educational and health organizations,” she says.

“Although our number of students receiving support is lower this year, our professional development classes have continued. We provide educators with more strategies to be more effective in providing virtual and in-person learning as well as resources for understanding and supporting children with anxiety and/or mental health concerns and self-care techniques for them. Our community-wide disability and advocacy conferences, book and movie events have also continued throughout this year.”

To celebrate JDAIM, Opening the Doors is offering a variety of programs in February. Programs include a Madrichim Leadership Training for teens; an Enhanced Learning Initiative for teachers; speakers including authors and disability experts and more. For more information, visit jccdet.org

This story first appeared in myjewishdetroit.org.

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