Brodsky Library celebrates volunteer’s milestone

Volunteer Sam Lyss enters obituary information from archived books of the Jewish Light into a computer database at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library last week. Lyss, who is autistic, recently entered his 10,000th obituary as part of the project for the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives. At right is Archivist Diane Everman. Photo: Yana Hotter 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Institutions honor their best workers every day, but a reception held last Thursday in the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library paid tribute to one worker’s achievement so notable that even KSDK-TV (Channel 5) news showed up for the event.

The volunteer worker earning all the praise is Sam Lyss, who has spent the past four years painstakingly digitizing obituaries from bound volumes of the St. Louis Jewish Light for the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives, housed at the Brodsky Library. Last week, he made his 10,000th entry.

“He comes every Thursday,” library director Barb Raznick said. “Unless we are closed for a holiday, he’s here.”

“He even comes when I’m not here,” archivist Diane Everman says.

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Raznick adds: “It will be so useful because we constantly have people asking for obituaries. It has been a wonderful project.”

And by all accounts, Lyss, 26, is a wonderful presence in the office. He has autism and is nonverbal but holds as many as nine volunteer positions, from work at the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry to helping at community centers, offices or plant nurseries.

“Every job that he goes to, they have different work for him,” said his mother, Jane Lyss of Olivette. “That’s partly why we set it up the way that we did. There is a variety of the types of work each week, and I’ve chosen different kinds of work to give him balance.”

That balance leaves her son with a lot of responsibility, but it is an arrangement that both he and his bosses have come to enjoy.

“It’s just about being open to working with someone who has some differences, but it doesn’t take very long before the job site realizes what a benefit it is because when Sam starts working, he doesn’t stop,” she said. “He completes the job. Very quickly, any job site recognizes that benefit.”

Rinat Kisin, who was recently hired as inclusion coordinator at the Jewish Federation, said that experience can be replicated with many individuals who have special needs.

“When I heard about Sam, I thought this would be a great model for other families and other young individuals to show that they can contribute and do things that some people think that they can’t,” Kisin said. “We just need to do a little bit to accommodate their needs, and then the sky is the limit.”

Patricia Farrell, Lyss’s job coach, said individuals with special needs affect and are affected by their workplaces.

“I think two things happen when someone like Sam Lyss is in a community,” she said. “First, it acclimates him to the community, but also other people who may not be familiar working with someone with a disability can see that Sam is competent, intelligent and can perform important work. 

“The other part of that is that Sam gets around the community. He sees what the community is and what goes on there and that he is a part of it.”

Sam Lyss, whose job performance is excellent, requires ongoing supervision to make certain that he stays safe. In some cases, autistic individuals may not always recognize common dangers and may need guidance.

Yet Jane Lyss says her son is also very independent.

“He doesn’t really need physical assistance with anything,” she said. “In fact, he’s begun managing his own practice apartment in our home. We created his own kitchen and apartment area, so he’s practicing for his future. He can cut his own food and cook, but he needs supervision.”

As with most parents of those with special needs, Lyss sometimes worries about what is next in life for her child. Ideally, she’d like to see some sort of assisted-living arrangement develop in the Jewish community that would help Sam maintain contact with his Judaism and kosher lifestyle.

“It’s a big challenge,” Jane Lyss said. “We want him to be as independent as he can be. As to what his future will be, it is difficult to come up with the right option because we won’t be here forever. We don’t have all the options out there that we would like.”

In the meantime, Sam Lyss remains an inspiration to those around him.

“We look to families like the Lysses and people like Sam as standard-bearers of what should be everyone’s goal of reaching one’s potential,” said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, where the family attends services. “Sam is working very hard to reach his potential, and he’s tremendously talented.”

Smason also is the parent of a child with special needs; his daughter Yelli has Down syndrome.

“Accomplishments like this are very near and dear to my heart when I see them,” he said. “That’s our goal for ourselves and all of our children as rabbis, teachers or parents, to help everyone reach their goal whatever that might be.”