By the time they hit 18, most kids are anxious to get out into the real world. Headed to college, to travel or into a career, they’re ready to test the waters of adulthood.
But for kids with special needs, the transition from home to independent living isn’t always easy. And for some Jewish young people in Los Angeles, that’s where the Etta Israel Center comes in.
Founded with the help of a bequest from the late Etta Israel, who died in 1990, the Etta Israel Center was established in 1993 to help families with special needs. This year, the center will launch its newest program — Jewish Community Housing for Adult Independence, or J-CHAI.
Funded by a $200,000 grant from Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, J-CHAI will help place Jewish young adults with special needs in apartments in the Pico-Robertson area. Residents will live with a roommate and have the support of Etta Israel staff as they navigate the world outside their parents’ homes.
Most residents will be autistic, said Michael Held, the center’s executive director.
“There are people on the spectrum who have a wide range of functioning,” Held said. “Many are people who see themselves, or whose family members see them, as capable of independent living, or more independent living on a constant basis.”
By June of this year, J-CHAI residents will begin moving into the apartments, which are rented in apartment buildings with existing tenants so residents will be as much a part of the larger community as possible, and they, along with their families, will be responsible for paying rent. Depending on the residents’ needs, Etta Israel may also place a staff member on site — Held likens the setup to a resident assistant in a college dorm.
Other members of the J-CHAI community who don’t need as much supervision will still have access to Etta Israel staff 24 hours a day.
Landlords that the center has reached out to so far — many of whom are Jewish — have been very supportive, Held said.
The goal of the program, he added, is that residents learn independent living skills, like preparing meals and planning social activities, and that they become active members of the community.
“There is a focus on each person being on his or her own path,” Held said. “[Residents] will have some type of productive involvement during the day, and activities in the evening, which could range from going to social activities in the community, classes at night, talking to friends or watching TV.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 13 percent of children in the United States have a developmental disability, including an estimated 1 in 110 with an autism spectrum disorder.
Despite those statistics, many families involved with Etta Israel say that support for people in the Jewish community with special needs has, until recently, been lacking.
Lynn Mayer, whose 26-year-old son, Avramel, has Down syndrome, says that when Avramel was a child, resources were scarce.
“Eighteen years ago, there was very little available for Jewish kids [with special needs] in L.A.,” she said.
That meant that young people with special needs often had no place to go as they became adults, and many have wound up staying at home with their parents — an arrangement that can be detrimental.
Young adults with special needs who never move away from home “end up being isolated, and developmentally, their social skills are weak, language skills are weak, and it’s hard to place them elsewhere” when their parents inevitably become unable to care for them, Held said.
Programs like Etta Israel, then, offer families like the Mayers something they worried would elude them for life: a sense of security in knowing that their child will be taken care of after they’re gone.
“When you have a child with special needs, you think about your own mortality,” said David Mayer, Avramel’s father. “What’s he going to do when he grows up? Where is he going to live?”
Now, Avramel lives in the Ryzman Family Group Home, one of three houses owned by Etta Israel and occupied by young adults with special needs, located in residential, primarily Jewish San Fernando Valley neighborhoods.
“As parents, the home gives you a lot of peace of mind,” said Marilyn Stein, whose son, Max, lives in the same home as Avramel.
Etta Israel plans to open a fourth home soon, in addition to its expansion through the J-CHAI program.
And if the new residences are anything like those that already exist, they will find support not only from parents and community members, but also from residents like Avramel.
Sitting around a kitchen table at his home on a recent Sunday afternoon, Avramel jumped at the chance to speak about his experience with Etta Israel.
“I love the group home,” he said, glancing around at his parents, friends and the community he’s helped to create. “I like my friends, and the Valley Village Jewish community, I like my room, I love music. I have a good life.”