Jonathan Wiener loves being around kids. He’s cheerful and empathetic and eager to interact, but the 11-year-old from Scotch Plains has trouble reading social cues.
For that reason, his mother, Marcia, said, she leaped at the chance to enroll him in Kids Connect, a new program designed to provide social and recreational activity for youngsters with autism spectrum disorders.
The program is a joint effort of Conservative synagogues Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains and Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford and Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains, a Reform congregation.
The program, the first of its kind in Union County, is open to youngsters aged 10-15, or in grades five-10, from across the Greater MetroWest region; participants don’t need to be affiliated with any of the sponsoring synagogues.
The opening get-together will take place this Sunday, Feb. 23, 12:30-1:30 p.m. at CBI.
“Jonathan’s a very social creature,” Marcia said, “but like any child, he needs to learn how to be social, and with this, he’ll be doing it in a Jewish context. He’ll be having fun, but also learning about tikun olam, and giving back.”
The first session will include activities focusing on family, friends, community, and Judaism. According to the organizers, the group will meet every four to six weeks for holiday celebrations, trips, social action projects, and other youth group activities.
Funding has come from MetroWest ABLE, a support and advocacy program of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The name is an acronym for Access, Belonging, and Life Enrichment for People and Families with Special Needs.
Program coordinator Dana Brenner will be assisted by teen “buddies,” a group of students from grades eight through 12 trained to provide peer support; a licensed special-needs educator will be on site.
“I am thrilled to be working with such an enthusiastic group of teens to form a youth group for children with special needs in our community,” said Brenner, who has worked as a preschool teacher and a Jewish educator and youth group leader. “We already have a wonderful group of kids participating and are looking forward to connecting with more families. This is a great opportunity for both social and learning time.”
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, former education director of Temple Sholom and now its Kids Connect volunteer liaison, is working with CBI’s religious education director, Elly Bauman, to oversee the program.
Abraham herself is the mother of a teenager just starting to get involved with the temple’s youth group and a regional teen organization. She said the initial idea came from Temple Sholom member Gina Banks, who has a son on the autism spectrum. “We were talking about how powerful youth groups are, and Gina commented that a typical youth group would never work for her son,” Abraham recalled. “We talked about what could work, and crafted this idea together.”
They invited CBI and TBEMC to join in and sought funding for the idea. “With the support of MetroWest ABLE, we were able to see it come to fruition,” she said.
There are other programs in the area that cater to youth with special needs. In Union County those include the JCC of Central NJ’s Camp Yachad inclusion program, the Friendship Circle of Union County, and the Ma’ayan program run by Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, a religious school program supported by the GMW federation. In the historic MetroWest area, such programs are offered through JCC MetroWest, Camp Deeny Riback, Friendship Circle of MetroWest, the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled’s WAE Center in West Orange, and Mount Freedom Jewish Center.
However, said Rebecca Wanatick, the community coordinator for MetroWest ABLE, “these programs, while of great value, provide different opportunities than that of Kids Connect. It not only serves a need in the [Union County] community, providing Jewish social opportunities for youth with special needs, but the committee was also impressed with the collaborative effort of three congregations. They identified a need that had been expressed in their community, and we want to support their efforts.”
Jonathan participates in the Ma’ayan program at Temple Emanu-El, where he has learned to read Hebrew and has started preparation for his bar mitzva ceremony next year. His mother said, “He loves the Ma’ayan program, and they are doing an absolutely wonderful job. But this new program will give him a chance to socialize and meet kids from other communities.”