Jawonio means "independence" in Native American. And, more importantly, it means the same for thousands of individuals with disabilities whom the agency serves every year. Jawonio was founded in 1947 when a group of Rockland County parents refused to institutionalize their children with cerebral palsy.
They placed an ad in the newspaper looking for help and found a therapist who was willing to work with them. That was the beginning of what has become a comprehensive, life-long continuum of high quality services.
Jawonio’s range of programs has grown over the years in much the same way those first young children have grown.
Sidebar: Lifespan Services for Individuals with Multiple Disabilities
Early Intervention Services
The agency began with and still has a strong focus on providing early evaluation and related services for young children.
“We have state of the art audiology services that tests children for hearing loss sometimes within days of their birth,” says Jill Warner, who came to Jawonio in 1992 and has led it as CEO since March 2009. “By working with these young children around hearing loss, we are also able to follow them through their early years if needed, and make recommendations if therapeutic interventions are called for.”
Early Intervention (EI) for children with developmental delays or disabilities is a keystone in the agency’s foundation. Jawonio therapists can assess a child for delays in cognitive development, physical development, communication, social-emotional development, and adaptive development. When delays or disabilities are diagnosed, the agency can provide speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy on-site or in the family’s home. The program serves children from birth to age three.
“Early Intervention is very fundamental to this agency,” says Warner. “We see that it works. Early Intervention is probably the most preventive of all services. The brain is still forming. This is the time that we are going to be able to make our greatest impacts. We have any number of examples of individuals who have gone on to get bachelor or master’s degrees and have prestigious careers as a result of two or three years of intensive therapies when they were a child.”
Despite its value, providing Early Intervention services is financially challenging. “It has been chronically underfunded,” says Warner. “We have only had one rate increase since 1992.” Jawonio uses annual charitable contributions from its Kidz Express fundraisers to subsidize the service.
Jawonio’s Special Education Pre-School serves children three-to-five years of age that are referred by local school districts because of therapeutic, educational or social needs. The program operates in conjunction with both a day care program and Universal Pre-Kindergarten for typically developing youngsters from the local community. The result is a comprehensive early childhood education program with an extraordinary array of clinical, educational and therapeutic supports in which both special needs and typically developing children learn together in a series of appropriately blended “inclusion” classrooms and activities.
“We have 200 children in this building, between Special Ed, day care and UPK,” says Jawonio Pre-School Director, Gail Nachimson. “In our inclusion classrooms, you can’t tell who is who, which is the way it is supposed to be.” The agency also runs an afterschool program for school-age children. In total, the day care program runs from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
“The overwhelming majority of our Special Ed children have speech/language issues,” says Nachimson. “Probably 90% receive speech services. For some of these, the speech/language issues impact on the child’s behavior.” Many also have other developmental disabilities, including a growing number of children on the autism spectrum and those with “global delay” who experience developmental delays in several functional areas.
“We have seen a big increase in the numbers of children who have challenging behaviors, either social or emotional, including children who are typically developing cognitively – their academic and intellectual skills are average -- but behaviorally they are really struggling,” says Nachimson.
“Close to 40% of families receive some kind of behavioral counseling,” said Dr. Anne Ostroff, head of children’s psychology services.
With a full-time nurse on staff, the program is also able to accommodate children with complex medical challenges. “We have children with diabetes, feeding tubes and seizure disorders who might not otherwise be able to attend pre-school,” says Nachimson.
Special needs children receive a combination of pre-kindergarten skills and activities, along with individually targeted speech, occupational and physical therapies. Classroom settings and staffing reflect the needs of the children. Special needs children may learn in “self-contained” Special Ed classrooms, blended “inclusion” classrooms, or, most likely, a combination of the two. “The children spend time in all different classrooms,” says Nachimson. “Even if they are in a self-contained class, they are going to spend time with typically developing children when we do activities.” Children with autism or behavioral issues develop social skills in small groups and are then sent to a larger classroom with typically developing children for part of their day so they can practice their skills.
“Each classroom is set up like a traditional nursery school,” she continues. “All the children do the typical program which you would do in any pre-school, which is very important to us. They learn colors, shapes and numbers… the things you would need for any kindergarten. We follow the Creative Curriculum, which is the State-approved curriculum for early childhood programs. In addition, children with special needs have their own Individualized Education Plan (IEP).”
Typically developing children benefit from the blended program. “It is a tremendous advantage for families,” says Warner. “There are trained special education teachers and therapists in the classroom. We can recommend techniques and strategies to help the children learn and if there are any issues, we can spot them right away.”
Approximately half of Jawonio’s pre-school children graduate to attend mainstream kindergartens in their neighborhood schools. The other half go on to Special Ed or Inclusion classrooms.
Jawonio’s afterschool program for children with special needs was a direct response to appeals by families of former pre-schoolers. “Parents kept calling to say that they couldn’t send their children to regular after-school and nothing else was available,” says Warner. Fortunately, Jawonio received a 5-year grant from the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities, who provided funding for the after-school respite program for children with disabilities.The program is called, JSAC, or Jawonio School Age Care. The NYS Office of Children and Family Services license all of Jawonio Special Education Pre-School programs.
Back in the 1950s, those pioneering families who chose to keep their children living at home also wanted them to have many of the same experiences as other kids. One of these was attending a summer day camp. Camp Jawonio, located on the agency’s main campus in New City, was the first camp in Rockland County for children with physical disabilities.
“The program is still operating today,” says Warner. Now, it is funded by the State Education Department for children who need an extended school year. “It is a great experience. There are games and activities but they are all geared towards meeting a therapeutic goal. Officially, it is a summer education program. But the kids just think it is as fun in a camp-like setting.”
Jill Warner arrived at Jawonio in 1992, just as the agency set out to begin creating residential opportunities in the community for individuals with developmental disabilities. “We opened the first IRA (Individualized Residential Alternative) in Rockland County in March of 1992,” says Warner. Since then, the agency has developed a total of 13 residences, which are home to 123 individuals.
“The state asked us to create homes for the last group of people living at Letchworth Village,” says Warner. “They were individuals who were both medically frail and developmentally disabled. They were people that no one else would take.” She believes that this is emblematic of the agency’s willingness – and ability – to serve the individuals with the most complex needs, including multiple and co-occuring developmental and psychiatric disabilities. (See: Lifespan Services for Individuals with Multiple Disabilities)
“In 2000 Jawonio purchased and renovated six condominiums in four condominium complexes in Rockland County,” says Warner. In 2004, Jawonio built and opened a HUD-funded complex serving 18 individuals in separate single apartments. “Traditionally, HUD only funded big new projects,” says Warner. “This was the first time HUD funded apartments within existing condominium buildings.” The program has been valuable in allowing people with disabilities who previously lived at home with aging parents to live independently in the community. Most also attend Jawonio day programs or work in supported employment.
Jawonio’s newest IRA opened in New City in 2009. “We have five gentlemen who live here,” says Michelle Diaz who manages the program. “They each have their own bedrooms decorated according to their own tastes. We have sports fans, wrestling fans and even a horse fan. They are very independent.” The residents all came into the house after living at home with their families. “They’ve known each other for a long time through programs they attended while growing up.” Now, they spend their days at jobs in the community or in day program. One works at the local ShopRite; another at Goodwill; a third works in a local business office.
Getting Down to Business
Helping men and women with disabilities find independence and fulfillment through work has been a Jawonio focus for close to 50 years. “We are the largest provider of supported employment services in the region,” says Jill Warner. “We prepare and place people in competitive jobs in the community. We work with people who have developmental disabilities and people who have mental illness.”
In addition to its Tech Center in Rockland County Jawonio offers employment services at its Yonkers site in Westchester.
The agency began offering vocational and day programming in the 1960s. At one point, Jawonio employed a total of 250 individuals with disabilities in a large sheltered workshop. The goal, however, was to enable people to find work at local employers where they would truly be integrated into the daily life of the community.
With funding from the State Education Department’s ACCESS program and OPWDD, Jawonio now provides supported employment for approximately 300 people with disabilities – most at jobs in the community. “We do everything from very high tech IT jobs to retail and service jobs,” says Warner.
“We explain to employers that our people make really great employees,” says Sheri Muth, Division Director, Employment and Day Services. “They want to work and they are grateful for the opportunity. They come to work on time,are loyal, have a lower turnover and greater longevity than other employees. “
Once again, however, limited government reimbursement levels has forced Jawonio to “think outside the box” in its approach to providing supported employment services. “Our Employment Services are very important to the agency and the people we serve,”says Warner. So, in addition to seeking out businesses to hire its consumers, the agency began creating businesses of its own.
In 2000, it launched The Jawonio Cleaning Company that now provides almost $3.5 million dollars of commercial cleaning and custodial services to government and corporate sites in Westchester and Rockland Counties. “Most important, it employs 115 people, 85% of whom are disabled,” says Warner.
“We clean well over one million square feet of office space every day,” says Sheri Muth. The customer list includes Westchester County Courthouse, parts of The Robert L. Yeager Health Center, the Hudson Valley Developmental Disabilities Services Offices; NYS toll booths, buildings in Yonkers and New Rochelle, Rockland Psychiatric Center and NYS Department of Motor Vehicles in White Plains.
“We have a new contract with the MTA starting with a couple of Metro North buildings,” says Muth. Government agencies can contract with Jawonio under the NYS Preferred Source Program, which is administered by the NYS Industries for the Disabled.
“In some locations, we have one person who works independently at night for 20 hours a week,” says Muth. “In a couple of places, we have a team that goes in with a supervisor. We try to be a good employer.”
The ability of the Jawonio Cleaning Company to generate a “profit” is important in helping to self sustain the workforce training and operational supports for the program. “It is the ‘double bottom line,’” says Muth.
“We are financially viable and we achieve our social mission. It is a win for Jawonio who supports employment for people with disabilities and a win for employers to get a well-trained, loyal workforce.” says Warner.
Jawonio has taken this entrepreneurial spirit to heart. It now operates a number of different businesses of varying sizes. Java Spot, located at Jawonio headquarters, allows consumers who might not otherwise find competitive employment to operate a small business serving coffee and snacks to agency employees, visitors and other consumers. A Thrift Shop in Yonkers will soon provide greater community integration for consumers who maintain the inventory and help customers. Jawonio even operates a commercial Document Imaging Services business in partnership with E-Biz Docs.
Last month, the agency launched its newest venture – Jawonio Clean by Steam –an eco-friendly mobile steam hand wash and spray wax service for vehicles and other applications. The staff cleans and sanitizes vehicles both inside and out using less than a gallon of water per vehicle. Jawonio already has a corporate account, and more on the horizon. Individuals at their workplace will also have the opportunity to have their cars serviced while at work, because Jawonio Clean by Steam comes to them.
Looking ahead, Jawonio is studying a variety of franchise-type businesses in the fast food field. “It would be a great way for us to train our people for jobs in privately-owned franchise businesses out in the community – while also running another successful business ourselves,” says Warner.
Jawonio’s CEO and the Board of Directors feel that adding private enterprise solutions will be vital for nonprofit agencies that now rely almost completely on government contracts. “The State is not going to be able to fund services to the level that we need,” she says. “Those of us who believe that it is essential to help people with disabilities gain independence are going to have to look for new ways to fund their own programs. Jawonio will continue to encourage staff, who are the heart and soul of our agency, to be innovative while at the same time, continue to improve quality as we provide our lifespan services in this new era of health care delivery.”