Fiona Kark’s fourth son, Yosef, was born with Down Syndrome. Kark said that her and her husband’s dream, since Yosef was born, was “that he could potentially one day go to school with his siblings.”
“At that time it was hard to know how he would develop,” Kark said.
Yosef is now six years old, and Kark said he is “just like a regular little boy, just a little slower.”
This year, the Karks’ dream will come true when their son enters kindergarten at the same school with the rest of their children, thanks to a new program called Include Me.
Include Me is part of Ohr Atid, which means Light of the Future, which was started 10 years ago by a group of local families. It is a nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to provide education and training for school-age children of all ability levels and to provide services as necessary for family support.
According to Michael Shapiro, the current president of Ohr Atid, “The whole idea of inclusion is to keep the children in their communities and keep the kids where they would normally go to school if they did not have specific needs.” Shapiro is the parent of Eitan, who will also be entering kindergarten through the program.
Albert Glassman, past president and founder of Ohr Atid, said the history of the program began with the realization that there was nothing in the community for children with special needs.
A community meeting was held with Sheila Schwartz, founder of Keshet, a program that provides educational, recreational and vocational programs for children and young adults with special needs. Schwartz outlined the program that was the model for Keshet. That program began with a Sunday school and networked into support groups and eventually day schools.
“After meeting with representatives of CAJE and the Federation and day schools, and having the current education system being overwhelmed with the ongoing issues like Attention Deficit Disorder and reading comprehension issues and behavioral issues … they felt that while being supportive and wanting to help, the scope of dealing with kids with more severe disorders was something the parents had to facilitate and work out and find funding for and then come back to the respective organizations for additional support.”
And that is exactly what they did. Ohr Atid began with a Sunday school with help and classroom space from Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, expanded into support groups with an ongoing computer therapy program with computers donated by Monsanto, started Project Prism, providing information resources for parents, and “we are now embarking on Project Include Me, as the goals continue,” Glassman said.
Glassman said Ohr Atid received tremendous encouragement throughout the process from Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Federation, and is looking to apply for grants and turning to the community for donations, “and we look forward to the Jewish Federation and CAJE helping us move forward as we embark on Project Include Me as much as they can and as they promised us they would at the time.”
Shapiro said the program was started with a Sunday school, which is still running today, “but their intent was always to start an inclusion program in the day schools.”
Shapiro said Ohr Atid sought to expand the program when three children in one year were born with Down Syndrome within the Jewish day school community.
The Include Me program is modeled after programs in several other cities, and will be starting this year with Eitan entering Epstein Hebrew Academy and Yosef entering Torah Prep.
Shelly List is serving as project coordinator, and said she is “thrilled to be a part of this effort to include Jewish children with special needs into the day schools.”
“We are starting as a pilot program,” List said, “and I hope that we will expand into all of the Jewish day schools in the community.”
List said the schools — which will have one-on-one facilitators for the Include Me students — have been thoroughly prepared for the program.
“We have recruited very skilled teachers to facilitate this effort, and they have been trained in the areas of inclusion, the specifics of the disorder of each student, their learning challenges and best teaching strategies, behavior management techniques, and social skills training,” she said.
List said the schools “have been wonderfully welcoming to us,” and Shapiro said they have received entirely positive feedback.
“The principals have been incredibly supportive and are enthusiastic about it, the teachers are very enthusiastic and have come on their own time to learn more about inclusion because it is new to them, the parents of the other students are all really excited … so we really have not heard anything but excitement and support,” he said.
Kark, who is executive vice president of Ohr Atid, said research into other cities and programs reveals that the special needs children “actually end up benefiting the typically developing kids in the classroom … somehow these kids just bring out nurturing in the other kids.”
Kark said her son is “just one of the guys, with just a little help,” and Shapiro said Eitan may not understand what it all means, but “we tell him he is going to his sister’s school, and he seems to be very excited about that.”
There will be a family walk-a-thon barbecue on Sept. 10 at the Jewish Community Center Weinberg Biblical Playground to benefit Ohr Atid and to kick off the Include Me program. The 1K walk-a-thon will begin at 3:30 p.m., with the barbecue from 4 to 6 p.m. Cost for the barbecue is $5 per plate, and attendees are encouraged to find sponsors for the walk-a-thon. There will be prizes and entertainment.
For more information about the walk-a-thon, or about Ohr Atid and the Include Me program, visit www.ohratid.org or call 314-862-3745.