Jenine Shwekey of Long Branch, the founder and director of the Special Children’s Center in Lakewood, was named one of four finalists in the 2011 Jewish Community Heroes campaign run by the Jewish Federations of North America.
Randy Gold of Atlanta won the Jewish Community Hero of the Year Award for his work in founding the Atlanta Jewish Gene Screen, which educates rabbis, doctors, and couples on the importance of screening for disorders commonly present in Jewish families. The Federation Hero of the Year (a nominee whose project is operated by a federation or JFNA partner agency) is Joel Markovitch of Athens, Ga., for his work with the University of Georgia Hillel.
Some 240,000 votes were cast on-line for the third annual campaign, which aims to recognize those who help their communities through their careers and volunteer service.
As a high school student in Oakhurst, Shwekey met a family with a son who had special needs. “I saw how the child was turning over the family’s life” and needed constant care, she told NJ Jewish News in a Nov. 24 interview.
So Shwekey and a friend rented an apartment — a benefactor soon provided space rent-free — to provide after-school care twice a week for the boy and a half-dozen other special-needs youngsters.
Sixteen years later, their Special Children’s Center is open six days a week, along with a weekend program Shwekey runs at her home. The center serves 250 families, with 80 young people in its afterschool program. They begin attending when they are two or three years old and some remain until they reach adulthood.
The youngsters, said Shwekey, “do music. They do art. They do gym.” The center’s 118 employees include some who have been in the afterschool program. “Our special-needs adults set the table for supper and put the food on the plates,” said Shwekey.
Out of a $2.1 million annual budget, the center receives $700,000 from the state, with the rest from private funds.
“You don’t need to be Jewish to be a Jewish Community Hero, but you need to be one of three things: A Jewish person helping the Jewish world, a Jewish person helping the world at large, or a non-Jewish person helping the Jewish world,” Andy Neusner, senior manager of web content at JFNA and chief organizer of the contest, told NJ Jewish News in a Nov. 21 phone interview.
The names of nominees were submitted to JFNA’s website beginning in August. By the time the process closed on Nov. 10, voters had 320 names to choose from. The winners were announced Dec. 7. The four finalists each receive a $1,000 grant for their nonprofit organization.
The judges were Jewish leaders from areas as diverse as business, sports, education, social work, and the arts.
“This is a way to say ‘thank you’ to people who are doing thankless work,” Neusner said. “We want to nurture and encourage people to do things for the Jewish community.”
Shwekey is married to singer Yaakov Shwekey, who performs in Orthodox Jewish communities in many parts of the world. They have four children.
The Special Children’s Center, she said, “is my life,” adding that while she doesn’t seek the limelight, “there is no greater thing than giving and trying to make a difference in the world.”
To learn more about the program, visit www.jewishcommunityheroes.org.