Advocates for learning and developmentally disabled adults and their clients gathered in South Orange Sunday to dedicate a new facility intended to serve as a state-of-the-art hub for health, recreational, and social activities.
The Judith Ruback Schechner Recreation and Wellness Center was named in memory of the longtime local benefactor who had served as president of JESPY House, the Jewish community-sponsored program for adults with learning and developmental disabilities.
“Judi House,” four years and nearly $2 million in the making, will house JESPY’s day program, health and recreation departments, and a cafe.
It includes a fitness room and a kitchen that will enable clients to learn skills of daily living. There are administrative offices, and areas for clients to learn about hygiene or CPR skills, or to do job searches assisted by vocational training professionals.
The two-story space, on the former site of the Valley National Bank on Irvington Avenue, provides room to expand existing programs and implement new ones.
“I loved it from the minute I walked in. It’s great for us,” said Steven Rothfeld, a JESPY client who was at the celebration. Rothfeld said he is looking forward to having Friday night dinners in the gathering area where the celebration was held to open the facility.
“The clients deserve this,” said Carol Endl, a supervisor at JESPY House. “They didn’t have a place to gather, to hang out. Look at them now,” she said, and pointed to the patio area, where a group had gathered to chat and enjoy the day.
“Judi believed everyone in this world needed to have a place, a community to belong to, and a safe spot to go,” said Marjorie Gart, Judi Schechner’s daughter. “This is the world of Judi House: a place for meeting, greeting, wellness, social interaction, food — all things my mother cherished. But above all, a safe place that creates a confident world for people.”
To have JESPY House, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, “quartered in first-class facilities named after Judi Schechner, a lifelong advocate for the developmentally disabled, is an unbelievable way to start the New Year of 5771,” said UJC MetroWest executive vice president Max Kleinman. “I congratulate JESPY’s leadership and donors for making Judi House possible for JESPY’s clients and the community at large.”
‘Judi was here’
Arthur Schechner, Judi’s husband, said he was asked if a picture of his late wife would be displayed at the site.
Schechner said a photo would be “too static.”
“We already have a wonderful picture of her right here all around us,” he said. “Look at the faces of the clients who are here today. Look at the walls and the ceiling. Look at the whole dramatics coming out of this place. Look at my proud children and grandchildren. Look at the JESPY parents. Look at Judi’s friends. Look at the staff and the volunteers. Look at the sun coming through the skylight.
“Look about you — there is Judi Schechner.”
Clients like Rothfeld gave tours of the two-story facility, as did others involved in the creation of the new building.
The money raised for the project includes a $250,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.
JESPY was founded in 1978 and opened a residence with four clients at 65 Academy St. in South Orange.
Today more than 70 staff members work to meet the needs of the agency’s 150-plus clients. About 75 percent of clients live independently, either in their own apartments or in shared JESPY houses in South Orange. The other 25 percent live in JESPY’s more heavily structured and supervised residential housing.
“Judi would be very proud to be standing here knowing JESPY clients are no longer in a cramped environment,” said Jonathan Myers, a past president and cochair of the building committee.
The formal celebration concluded as Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange affixed a mezuza, together with Arthur Schechner, to the doorpost, officially dedicating the building.
“For the professionals and clients of JESPY House,” Gart remarked, “your world is a better place because Judi was here.”