Hidden JEMs: Volunteers help entertain, educate and advocate for adults with special needs

JEM workers and TOV volunteers strike a pose

The JEM workshop is a Federation CJA supported organization that offers meaningful work to adults with special needs in an effort to help them lead productive lives. Under proper supervision, workers sort, pack, and assemble a variety of commercial goods within an adapted and controlled work environment overseen by Director, Danny Kay. However, on this Monday afternoon, with the help of Federation CJA’s TOV volunteers, the JEM workshop has been converted into a hip hop dance studio.


Employees at the JEM workshop

With the lunch bell still reverberating throughout the workshop, dozens of special needs adults spill into an upstairs recreation room. Here, a steady baseline thumps through a pair of portable iPod speakers as we meet Christine, a local dance teacher who’s about to give this group a crash course in hip hop dancing and the swagger that comes with it.

Exuberance permeates throughout the room as the group is led into the corresponding steps and gyrations to recent hits such as “Gangnam Style” and “Call Me Maybe”. Free from the self-conscious reservation that would confine many of us to wallflower status, these participants display a certain candor, and a brazen determination to hit the floor, let loose, and have a good time with their peers.

Amongst them, are a group of dedicated volunteers from Federation CJA’s TOV program. Every Monday for the last two years, this group of ten women, led by Rhonda Friedman, has reached into their own personal networks and resources to bring in guest instructors to share their knowledge and skills with the workshop’s employees.

This has resulted into a genuine exchange of friendship and learning, with volunteers attesting that they derive just as much joy and satisfaction from the program as the people they’re there to serve. “For me, this is the cheapest form of therapy,” admits Rhonda, who started the program two years ago. And her team was quick to agree. “No matter what might be bothering me, I come here and can’t help but leave with a smile. The courage and joy exhibited by these individuals is extraordinary and puts everything into perspective,” added Naomi, who joined the TOV group last year.

Beyond passing on new skills, the program, and the workshop itself, offers a rare, yet deserved opportunity for both the participants to engage in productive work, and enjoy enriching experiences. For the workers, many of whom are craving more social opportunities, this weekly visit offers much needed human warmth and interaction –something we all require, regardless of the intellectual, physical, or emotional challenges we may be facing.

As the hour concludes, the workers are still buzzing; smiles abound, as they begin to make their way back to their posts, enjoying the afterglow and looking forward to what the “TOV ladies”, as they’re so endearingly called, might bring for them next.

To get involved with Tikun Olam Volunteers (TOV), please fill out this form or contact Lindsay Rothenberg by email or at 514-735-3541 #3202.

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