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Advancing Special Needs Programs: Start Where the Funder Is At

by Michelle K. Wolf

April 26, 2013 | 6:59 pm

In the field of social work, there’s a core concept of “starting where the client is at” meaning that the therapist or social worker needs to begin working with the client without pre-judging the situation, and not moving too far ahead of the client’s needs. So, for example, if the client is the mom of a newly-diagnosed 6 year-old with autism, it is probably not the right time to bring up where that child should live when an adult.

In a larger sense, the Ruderman Family Foundation is applying this same principle at their upcoming ADVANCE Conference May 8th in New York City. This 3rd annual conference is a gathering of leading Jewish philanthropists from North America, Israel and Europe who are dedicated to making charitable giving and grant making more inclusive for people with disabilities.

Co-sponsored by the Jewish Funders Network (JFN), The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston (their Federation), the conference is highlighting state of the art funding practices while also looking at the various needs of people with disabilities over their lifetimes.

Ephraim Gopin, Communications Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, told me that one key strategy is to encourage funders to add special needs inclusion funding to the programs they currently support. With overall disability rates approaching 20% of the U.S. population, excluding children, teens and adults with disabilities (often along with their parents and siblings) means leaving behind a significant portion of the Jewish community.

Under the leadership of Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, the ADVANCE conference has become a tangible reminder that our community’s leadership is finally acknowledging the growing numbers of Jews in North America and Israel with special needs, and is actively working to coordinate funding efforts. Unfortunately, the previous ADVANCE conferences have had few funders come from the west coast, a problem that I hope will be improved soon.

One very cool Los Angeles connection with this year’s conference is that ADVANCE conference participants will be invited to attend an evening performance of East Side Glory, a new production of the award-winning Miracle Project at the 92nd Street Y. The Miracle Project was started right here in Los Angeles by Elaine Hall, a good friend, and Mom of a teen with autism, and is now part of the Vista Inspire Project at Vista Del Mar. You can see the LA shows on May 5, 6 and 7th and purchase tickets here.The Miracle Project was the subject of the Emmy-winning documentary, Autism: The Musical.

In New York, as in Los Angeles, the show was written and will be performed by teens and young adults with autism and special needs, as well as their typical siblings and peers. Invariably, someone in the audience will say, “I can’t really tell who has special needs and who doesn’t". Now that, my friends, is truly a great place to start the communal conversation.

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