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JF&CS CHAI Works Serves Food and Smiles at Jewish Day Schools: by Sue Stellick

A CHAI Works-South participant wearing a purple shirt and hat inside a kitchen preparing lunch at The Rashi School in Dedham, MA.

A CHAI Works-South participant preparing lunch at The Rashi School in Dedham, MA.

“It’s awesome to see our participants smiling when we’re at a volunteer site,” said Bri Nichols, a Program Coordinator for JF&CS CHAI Works. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frown!”

CHAI Works is a community-based day program for adults with disabilities offered through Jewish Family & Children’s Service. With locations in Waltham and Canton, CHAI Works helps participants become more independent, pursue individual goals, and experience the gratification of meaningful, productive activity throughout the week.

Volunteering in the community is an important and popular part of the CHAI Works experience. “It gives the participants a sense of pride…it’s a way for them to give back,” said Nichols. “Volunteering is all about upholding the dignity of the participants.”

While the CHAI Works participants volunteer at a variety of locations, serving lunch at Jewish day schools has become a favorite activity. Participants in CHAI Works-South volunteer each week at The Rashi School in Dedham, while CHAI Works-Waltham participants serve food at Maimonides School in Brookline and MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham.

Serving lunch allows CHAI Works participants to practice skills related to kitchen safety, food prep, hygiene, customer service, and professionalism. “It’s not easy work,” said Heidi Isler, the Manager of CHAI Works-South. “Volunteers are sometimes on their feet for a couple of hours. They’re working the whole time.”

With October being National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), it is important to note that, in some cases, CHAI Works participants are able to transfer the skills mastered as volunteers into paid employment. Emily, one of our participants, works four days a week serving food at a school in Newton. Another participant, Elizabeth, drew upon her volunteer experience  “interacting with people and helping them” to secure an administrative role at Babson College in Wellesley.

While volunteering is hugely rewarding for our participants, it also makes a significant impact at the schools with whom we partner. At MetroWest Jewish Day School, parent volunteers have mentioned on several occasions that the support from CHAI Works volunteers has made the hot lunch process go much more smoothly and has even prompted them to consider serving hot lunch more often. Additionally, students are always excited to see our participants and love to greet them with high fives.

“The response from the schools has been wonderful,” said Kathryn Friel, the Program Director of CHAI Works-Waltham. “We actually started volunteering at MetroWest Jewish Day School through word of mouth. The staff at Maimonides School spoke so highly of our participants that MetroWest Jewish Day School reached out to us to help them with their volunteer needs.”

When CHAI Works-South first started volunteering at The Rashi School last fall, Otis Dean, one of our Program Coordinators, was struck by how hard our participants worked. “They served a full course pizza lunch to roughly two hundred K – 8 students, with hardly a break between the three lunch sessions…I was so impressed.” Dean recalls that during the ride back from The Rashi School, one of the participants said, “I really want to come back again.”

It is this sense of fulfillment for our participants that makes the partnership between JF&CS CHAI Works and our volunteer sites so valuable.

Sue Stellick is Associate Division Director – Day & Employment Services at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and has been with the program since 2006, and has worked in the disability field since 2000. With an MS in rehabilitation psychology, Sue’s expertise is in vocational support, day program development, service coordination, and community inclusion.

In our Jewish Disability Perspectives newsletter, RespectAbility welcomes a wide spectrum of voices. The views expressed in each Jewish Disability Perspectives contribution are those of the guest contributor.

Meet the Author

Debbie Fink

Debbie Fink was the Director of Community Outreach & Impact for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities.

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