Sebastian Clement of Montclair placed a cereal box on the shelf of a make-believe supermarket, smiled, and said he enjoys organizing products and stocking the shelves. “I like it because it keeps my mind busy,” he said.
At age 22, he has been receiving job training through the Career Discovery Program of the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest NJ in East Orange. His ultimate goal is to become a DJ who entertains at parties. “I like to meet people and work with others,” he said.
A few feet away, his mother, Gina Clement, beamed.
“What has he learned? Oh, my God, what hasn’t he learned?” she said. “He has gotten so many skills and become so independent. I find his confidence level, which I admire most, is much better than it was before. I think that is important because he needs very high self-esteem in order to progress.”
At another work station in the JVS’s basement room, 18-year-old Savon McDaniel of East Orange placed file folders in a cabinet and declared, “It’s a piece of cake.” He has been in training at JVS since August and said he aspires to work at a clerical job in a big office. “This program has helped me to motivate and get a job,” he said.
They are two of the 15 clients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) taking part in the JVS Career Discovery Program in the basement of its new headquarters in the Social Security Administration building in East Orange.
Reporters were invited to observe the clients’ accomplishments on April 25 as part of National Autism Awareness Month.
JVS is a partner agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ; the career program is funded through the NJ Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services and is cost-free to those who enroll.
Since 2011, Janice Sewell, an employment specialist at JVS, has helped train people with autism “from the time they finish high school until they are ready to transition into the world.” Apart from working with her clients, she seeks employment for those who have completed training. “I walk into a store and talk to whoever will listen. I try to get them to meet with our clients, interview them, and hire them.”
In the past six years, the agency has found jobs for 86 of its clients. “They do great,” said Victoria Krug, a project coordinator and vocational counselor at JVS’s Career Center for Individuals Diagnosed with ASD. “You would think because they have a disability they wouldn’t be successful, but they succeed because we take them from the very beginning until they actually get a job,” she said. Even after they are placed in the workforce, JVS clients may return for counseling, advice, and possible intervention if they run into problems with bosses or coworkers.
Among the other clients of the career center was 26-year-old Sam Mickiewicz, a resident of JESPY House in South Orange — another federation partner, offering residential and support programs for individuals with developmental disabilities. He attends group sessions twice a week at JVS, whose staff have helped him obtain an internship at Geralyn’s Art Studio in Maplewood. The position enables Mickiewicz to use his skills as a comic book artist. In the future, he said, he hopes to “live on my own, get married, and have babies.”
For a bit more than a year, client David Gongon, 26, of New Milford has been sharpening his job-seeking skills at JVS. “They taught me how to build a resume, write a cover letter, prepare for an interview, and search for a job,” he said, adding that he hopes to become a developer of computer software.
Max Steuer, who live in Mountainside, has been working at the St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison honing his job skills at JVS for the past two years at the Daughters of Israel skilled nursing facility in West Orange.
David Santoro of West Orange aspires to become a video editor. He has worked at Special Sports Productions in Caldwell, learning the craft of filmmaking, and as a cleaner at FreshPro Food Distributors in West Caldwell. The year he spent as a JVS client, he said, “definitely allowed me to get these jobs.”
“We focus on a person-centered approach,” said JVS CEO Addy Bonet. “We start with every person from where they are at individually and get them trained and employed. We work with every client who comes through the door and tells us they want to be employed. We help them to find their skills and what they are passionate about and we do our best to make the connection with employers.”
Her message to people in and outside the Jewish community is a simple one: “We want more clients. We would love volunteers. We are looking for employers who are looking to hire new employees on the autism spectrum.”
Project coordinator Krug said that “when you see the look of satisfaction on the clients’ faces once they have been placed, it is priceless. That is what JVS does, and once that goal has been met, it is an amazing feeling.”