Nonprofit JEVS to Create Collingswood ‘Independence Network’ for People with Disabilities


Eager to replicate the success of its seven-year program in Bryn Mawr, the Philadelphia-based JEVS is planning a support network to help people with disabilities live independently in the borough.

By Matt Skoufalos | January 25, 2018

Nonprofit JEVS is establishing a support network for people with disabilities in Collingswood. Credit: JEVS.

Parents of young people with developmental disabilities often wonder whether their loved ones will be able to live on their own.

Beyond the challenges of mental and physical health, it can be a struggle for people with developmental disabilities to find and retain work, to form appropriate social relationships, and to join fully in their local communities.

But for the past 11 years, the nonprofit Jewish Employment and Vocational Service (JEVS) has operated a community-based program in Narberth, Pennsylvania, that helps young adults with disabilities do all those things while living independently.

This spring, the organization hopes to replicate those results in Collingswood.

JEVS Director of Operations Jill Gromen described its services as “an independence network” through which clients access whatever they need “to build a rich and meaningful, independent life in the community.” JEVS service coordinators help program participants to develop independent living skills: housekeeping, job hunting, and social support.

The program serves clients aged 20 to 34 who are capable of living independently, and who are able and willing to work, volunteer, go to school, and participate in social events. Service coordinators arrange local calendars of activities, and help their clients engage with local community groups, which is a key reason JEVS is opening up shop in Collingswood, Gromen said.

Families of people with disabilities meet with representatives from JEVS at a Collingswood interest session. Credit: JEVS.

“We really support people to develop connection in the community where they live,” she said.

“Collingswood was intentionally chosen because of how much there is going on in any given week, and how many opportunities there are to get involved in community life.”

Like Narberth, Collingswood is walkable, close to public transit, and offers “opportunities for rich community life,” including shopping and dining, Gromen said.

“We don’t want people to be sitting at home, isolated in their apartments,” she said. “We help people connect to services as needed, but to whatever extent possible, we help them connect to local community resources.”

JEVS clients and their families must find their own apartment or home in Collingswood, which can be difficult. Gromen said some subsidies are available through the state-funded Supportive Housing Connection (SHC).

Main Street Realty agent Andrea Bille is working to educate local landlords about the SHC voucher program to help get JEVS a foothold in the borough. With a robust rental inventory, Bille believes Collingswood could accommodate as many clients as the program generates.

Realtor Andrea Bille said she is hoping to help connect landlords with JEVS clients. Housing vouchers are available for people with disabilities. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“We’re looking at the [Main Street Realty]  offices as the epicenter, and going a few blocks out in any direction to see the rental opportunities,” Bille said.

“There’s a lot of them.”

If the program flourishes, Bille believes JEVS someday could be an option for her own special-needs child.

A Collingswood resident, she would love to offer her son the opportunity to live independently in his hometown, a community he knows and in which he is known.

“More than likely, we’re going to remain here,” she said.

“I just feel that [JEVS] would help him continue to grow.”

Collingswood Director of Community Development Cassandra Duffey thinks the borough has the resources to do just that. Duffey has already connected JEVS representatives with employers in the borough business district, and said its clients are prime candidates for the annual Get Up Collingswood volunteer drive.

“It’s really a nod to Collingswood that [JEVS]  see it as a place that is good for their members,” Duffey said.

“A lot of our conversation has been about how can they get involved and who do they have to speak to,” she said. “I almost forget that they’re not even here yet.”

In addition to attracting new residents from throughout the area and beyond, Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said he believes JEVS will end up helping “a lot of our own citizens, and will add a new blend to our neighborhood.” Maley spoke with a number of prospective families at a January 6 JEVS interest session in Collingswood.

Collingswood Commissioners Rob Lewandowski (left) and Jim Maley address a roomful of families of people with disabilities at a JEVS interest session. Credit: JEVS.

“One of the things I’m proudest of is that we’ve developed a reputation of being welcoming,” Maley said.

“Our rep is being welcoming and open, and it doesn’t matter who you are.”

JEVS services cost $9,000 annually, but as a New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) certified provider, state funds may also be available to offset those costs.

Many clients work to support themselves, and receive help from family as well, Gromen said.

“We’re looking for ways to help people sustain independence, not just in a program, but to do so throughout their life,” she said. “It’s a gradual process.”

“The little things really are the big things,” Gromen said. “Sometimes it’s just someone getting an interview for a job; sometimes it’s getting a job

“Sometimes it’s getting involved in a community group, and feeling that it’s a place where you belong,” she said.

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