Grantee tames tangle of disability benefits

Grantee tames tangle of disability benefits

Jewish family agency helps clients customize the services they need

With support coordinator Maggie McCourt, right, at the JFS of MetroWest office in Florham Park are Harris Engel and his mother Helen.
With support coordinator Maggie McCourt, right, at the JFS of MetroWest office in Florham Park are Harris Engel and his mother Helen.

At the age of 22, Harris Engel is a jazz pianist and singer who hopes to become a recording artist. He is about to graduate from County College of Morris, and next month he will continue his music studies at Montclair State University. 

Because Engel has special needs and is over 21, he is no longer eligible for many of the social services he received from the State of New Jersey as a child and a teenager.

But thanks to the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities and a $44,616 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of NJ to Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, he is one of eight young adults receiving support coordination services from JFS.

“We were very pleased to learn that JFS had been selected to play that role and very happy to have been able to provide the support that they need to institute this very important service,” said Marsha Atkind, the foundation’s executive director. 

In October, JFS was approved by the state as a Support Coordination Agency for Essex and Morris counties. 

Under the grant, Support Coordinator Maggie Lynn McCourt, who handles all eight cases, helps the clients customize the educational, recreational, and other services they need, in accordance with a budget the state allocates for each client.

“Once I get a referral from the state I get background information from the clients,” McCourt told NJ Jewish News. “I go to their homes and meet with them and their families and come up with individualized service plans.

“Once we identify their goals, we start looking in their communities for the different services that will support them in reaching those goals.” 

JFS executive director Reuben Rotman said the program is an important alternative to the assumption that adults with special needs should live in group homes or other residential facilities.

“It’s been widely recognized that residing in such facilities is not always the best arrangement,” Rotman said, “so people now live independently with support, they live with family, they live in the community. But in order to live in the community they have to be able to access whatever services and support they need.” 

The process ensuring that accessibility, he said, is “logistically challenging, financially challenging, and you need an advocate to put it all together. That is the role of the support coordinator.”

Rotman said that role is a “good fit” for JFS, “and we are looking to expand beyond two counties in the next several months.”

He estimates that in the next six months some 1,600 individuals are going to need these services in New Jersey alone.

When McCourt first met Engel, “he spoke about a lot of the things he needed to work on,” she said. “His goal was to apply to Montclair State and become accepted. He has been accepted and really has taken many small steps that in the big picture have gotten him this far.” 

“Maggie is over and above being helpful,” said Helen Engel, who joined her son and McCourt for a recent conversation at the JFS Florham Park office. “Because of Maggie bringing her expertise into this and really understanding our needs and what our priorities were, she helped put all the pieces together.”

After consulting with Harris Engel, McCourt helped him enroll in a variety of programs at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, including swimming, music lessons, yoga, and life-skills training.

In addition to his studies, Engel has played piano in area synagogues. He has performed during Shabbat services at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex and Temple Beth Shalom in his hometown of Livingston and at Congregation B’nai Israel in Basking Ridge.

“I love playing music,” he said. “Whatever music I play, it makes me happy, and that includes church music or temple music. Playing music makes me feel much better about life.”

He also loves to sing and hopes to audition for The Voice, NBC’s on-air talent contest.

“I can’t wait to see what life has ahead for me,” he said. “Whether or not I succeed in my career, I will be proud of myself.”

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