“Without Shelanu, I would be alone in my room playing on my computer. But with Shelanu I get to go out with other people and participate in various activities that I enjoy.” So says Eitan, one of 35 members of Shelanu, a membership community that enables Jewish young adults with autism spectrum disorders to participate in Jewish life.
Shelanu, formed almost three years ago by WJCS with funding from UJA-Federation of New York, is a hub for members to meet, socialize, explore Judaism and Jewish values and have the support needed to incorporate them into their daily lives. It’s made a great difference to Eitan and other members who have either aged out of their Jewish programs, or haven’t had the opportunity to participate at all. Shelanu’s support enables participants to attend services and participate in Jewish traditions and celebrations.
One parent echoes that thought: “Shelanu provides my daughter Shayna with a vast array of social opportunities. It’s become the center of her social life.”
The menu of recreational and social activities centers on Jewish learning, but also includes vocational workshops, creative art and cooking classes, supported recreation and socialization via dinner and movie nights, interactive game nights, bowling, discussion groups, and unstructured “living room” time. Programs and activities are not mandatory. Each member is empowered to make his or her own choices and determine the level of participation.
“These activities allow our members to grow and expand their horizons personally and professionally,” says Robin Davies-Small, WJCS Shelanu program coordinator.
Shelanu members typically range in age from 18-35 and live throughout Westchester County. Many of the members attend school, college or vocational programs. Some have jobs. Some live in supported apartments, and some live with their families.
But while those aspects of the lives of young people with autism may be settled, social situations pose a challenge.
“Prior to Shelanu, we had often heard from many young adults that they had no opportunities or did not know how to find interesting social activities and remained isolated at home,” Davies-Small points out. “We conducted a focus group with the funding from UJA-Federation of New York about how to address these needs. In short order, Shelanu, which means ‘Ours,’ was established. Since then we’ve executed more than 300 activities and currently have about 35 members.”
One mom said recently, “My son was mainstreamed all through high school, but he never was invited to parties or out with the other boys. After his first night at a Shelanu event he came home and said, ‘I love it (Shelanu). I have friends now’.”
Shelanu’s programs and events are enriched by the strong collaborations with other organizations and agencies including JCCA, Congregation Kol Ami, JCC of Mid Westchester, Bet Am Synagogue and the WJCS POINT (Pursuing Our Independence Together) program. Shelanu and POINT jointly host a monthly Shabbat service and dinner.
The program is open year-round. Membership fee is $160 per year, pro-rated based on when an individual joins. The fee covers most costs. There may be additional fees for some specialized events. Some fee adjustments may be available based on need.
The group meets at the WJCS Taft Community Room in downtown White Plains. For more information on Shelanu, contact Robin Davies-Small, M.Ed, program coordinator, 914-949-7699 x404; firstname.lastname@example.org.