Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom Day Habilitation (YBLDH)

With what goals in mind was the YBLDH established?

Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom was established in 2000, with a modest group of pre-Bar Mitzvah age boys. The years that followed saw the program grow, with much siyata dishmaya, into a vibrant, full-fledged yeshiva for boys with special needs.

The need for some kind of "graduate program" became apparent as our older group of boys approached their twenties. We knew that we were standing at a crossroads. They would be transitioning from the Board of Education services to the OMRDD, which, loosely translated, means a switch from a school system to a day habilitation program. However, we were loath to simply send them off with fond farewells, knowing what awaited them in the not-so-distant-future. Our group of boys had become a cohesive unit, a chevra, and complemented each other beautifully over the years. What a shame it would be for this spirited group to disband, with each bochur winding up in a different day hab program. Even worse, perhaps, would be the fact that the available day hab programs serviced a melting pot of clients, spanning a wide range of mental retardation and levels of functioning.

We badly wanted our students to continue their education at YBL; we felt it would be a crime to stop teaching boys who were learning with "cheshek", and growing into real "mentschen" with the ability to become responsible members of the community. We believed we had the resources to give them what they needed.

And so, the Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom Day Hab was launched.

Describe a day in the YBL Day Hab. Describe the setting and structure for a typical day.

A typical day at the YBLDH combines a regular learning curriculum with a vocational training program. From 8:45 to 1:00, the bochurim daven and learn halachah, Gemara, parsha, and yahadus. After lunch, the day hab program continues until 7:00 with a varied schedule which includes working on-site at various job training locations, a health and fitness program, and an advanced life skills program.

What are the young men in the YBLDH accomplishing? What skills are they developing that will help them towards a more independent lifestyle in the future? Are they training for jobs?

Everything that goes on at the YBLDH is, in essence, a means towards the goal of having these young men become as independent as possible. To that end, Bonim Lamokom has created a truly masterful program which covers the bases using a four-pronged approach towards their future independence.

1) Building Basic Job Skills

Basic job skills include two important areas: learning how to hold a job responsibly and interacting well with other people.

We include a variety of work to evaluate what is best suited for each bochur. On the outset, each bochur fills out a questionnaire to pinpoint what his strong points, or particular interests, are. Examples of questions we ask them are whether they like to sit or move around while working, or whether they prefer a "noisy", bustling environment or a quiet, orderly workplace.

In keeping with the diverse personality types that make up our unique group, we arrange a schedule that benefits each bochur. The local office we train at has the quiet, tranquil environment that appeals to the more organized and reserved by nature, while the volunteer work at Tomchei Shabbos definitely is more physical, and is therefore ideal for the sturdy young men that love to shlep and "shvitz".

Then there are the seasonal worksites, like helping out at the local hardware store before Sukkos. Another wonderful place to train the bochurim is in Beis Midrash, where they have learned to rearrange the sefarim and tidy up the place. Washing and folding towels at a large local mikvah is a fantastic opportunity to learn the basics of washing laundry.

2) Managing Money

Each bochur in the YBLDH is the proud holder of his personal bank account, which he is learning to manage proficiently. A small allowance is distributed at the end of each week as a reward for good behavior; each young man will carefully make that bank deposit on his own. At month’s end, he will tally up how much money he has accrued in his account, and have the option of purchasing something of value with his very own money, (which he will purchase entirely on his own!).

What a brilliant, neat method of reinforcing the value of money and its practical applications.

3) Cooking skills

Introducing our young men to the kitchen has proven to be an incredibly successful experience. The boys have mastered the necessary cooking skills for creating their own supper on a daily basis. Some of the important skills they are acquiring include menu planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning.

At the beginning of each week, the bochurim look through the weekly circulars for specials on food items. Then, they carefully plan the week’s worth of menus, incorporating some of the products that are on sale. Each day, they visit a different grocery to purchase the ingredients for supper. Their counselors try to familiarize them with as many local shops as they can, to further aid their future independence. At the store, the bochurim manage to complete the shopping on their own, while their supervisor waits for them at the front of the store. A typical shopping trip is an invaluable opportunity to reinforce lessons such as making appropriate decisions, interacting with other customers, managing money responsibly, and paying at the register with cash, check or credit card.

Each day, the group prepares supper from beginning to end. Invariably, this includes peeling, chopping, stirring, frying, and of course, cleaning up each day after polishing off their hard-earned meal! Another wonderful aspect that they really absorb by exposure is safety in the kitchen, because after all, learning hands-on about fire safety is that much more effective than lessons in the classroom.

Here’s but a sampling of the mouth-watering food that has resulted from their forays into the kitchen: Vegetable salad, fried flounder, pizza, pasta, cholent, kugel, French fries, corn on the cob, and fruit drinks.

Dinner, anyone?

4) Hygiene and Fitness

Our weekly trip to the gym has many benefits for the YBLDH bochurim. The obvious motives are the wonderful health benefits, not to mention fun, this afternoon of recreation offers. A lively workout on steppers, exercise bikes, and treadmills, is followed by a vigorous swim in a heated pool.

Surprisingly, though, there seems to be another positive outcome. The afternoon also provides them with a healthy dose of lessons on personal hygiene. The bochurim learn to take a thorough shower with soap and shampoo before and after each swimming session. Their counselors utilize the opportunity to ensure that each boy looks after himself properly. This also extends to their belongings, where they have learned to fold and care for all of their possessions fastidiously.

These basic premises of personal hygiene are significant life skills that will stand them in good stead, especially in a group home setting. An education in hygiene is often sidestepped or altogether overlooked, yet, it is almost impossible to change old habits later on. All the more reason to keep these lessons a priority.

How many young men are currently in the Day hab program?

Currently, we have a small group of seven young men who form a cohesive unit. They are all high functioning, and each bochur contributes his unique abilities. The objective in keeping the program initially small is to ensure that each member of the group is achieving his unique potential and receiving the best education possible. I cannot stress enough that there is no cookie-cutter approach with these young men; each one must be assessed through different lenses and treated accordingly. It is gratifying to see how much progress we have, baruch Hashem, achieved with these practices, and we now look forward to our imminent expansion to two groups in the coming school year.

Do you conduct any conferences or seminars for the benefit of the parents

We are actually in the planning stages of a comprehensive symposium for all parents of YBL and YBLDH, on a topic that has, as of yet, never been aired in our special education community. Highly controversial, yet highly relevant, the subject of marriage among young individuals with special needs- and all the associated what-ifs involved- is a real issue for all these parents. Yet, this topic has never been faced head-on in a public forum.

While many parents may not be thinking along those lines, the reality is that most of the bochurim are quite sure in their stance that they are "going to get married soon, just like all of their siblings."

How do we respond to their innocent questions? What are their options in the future? Enter a panel of professionals and a ground-breaking symposium on the subject of Marriage: is it a viable option for our kids with special needs?

What are the parents of the bochurim in the YBLDH saying?

Here’s what Mr. Mendel Kolman, Yossi’s father told us:

"The Day Hab program is undoubtedly the best thing that ever happened in this yeshiva. My son is a different person. The program did wonders for him in every way possible. He has learned to be responsible. He is learning so much from being in the real world. He adores swimming.

Previously, Yossi was introverted and not partaking in class activities with much enthusiasm. It is plain to see that the program literally drew him out. He’s become a happy, responsible young adult.

We are flabbergasted by what Bonim Lamokom has created for our sons. The Day Hab is literally transforming our sons into happy, fulfilled people. It is simply phenomenal. "

What message would you like to impart to the community regarding the Bonim Lamokom Day Hab?

I feel duty-bound to let the community know what I have learned in my experience. I believe that employers out there know little about higher functioning young men with special needs, and a little education on what they are all about would rectify many a misconception.

They are the most industrious of workers, and work with a single-minded intensity to get the job done.

They are happy with whatever they get, and don’t harbor unrealistic expectations.

They will try to please their employers, and spread good cheer as opposed to gossip or negativity.

From our end, we are careful to choose settings where the work environment is warm and welcoming. We want to provide our young men with a positive feeling towards their work; that can only be accomplished when the worksite is a happy place for them to be. However, when employers transmit the message that they deserve the I-am-doing-the-chesed-of-the-year award for allowing us to work for them, we keep away. The bochurim are very perceptive, and can feel when they are unwanted "chesed projects".

We therefore try to get the message out to prospective employers: Help us make a difference in their lives- it’ll make a difference in your life!

This isn’t mere rhetoric; here’s an unbelievable example.

Last year, bochurim from the YBLDH began volunteering for Tomchei Shabbos in Williamsburg, an organization that provides hundreds of needy families with generous packages of food every Shabbos.

Prior to our entry to the Tomchei Shabbos volunteer squad, the other volunteers consisted of remarkable community members who have volunteered selflessly each week for some twenty (!) years, but couldn’t always be counted on to be available. It must be said that the first week our young men showed up to volunteer, they were welcomed, albeit with skepticism. Nobody believed that their help would really contribute to the work; in fact, they probably suspected that they would be a nuisance.

Well, let the facts tell the story. The bochurim of YBLDH now single-handedly pack over 200 boxes of food each week from start to end! That is no small feat, as fruits and vegetables have to be counted and bagged, and then the challah, grape juice, groceries and eggs are packed into the box with expertise to ensure that the foodstuff are enclosed with care. The senior volunteers have all but resigned, and handed over the reins of the operation to the special young men of the YBLDH. What a wonderful cycle of reciprocating kindness. What an amazing return on the mitzvah.

This article first appeared in issue #14 of Down Syndrome Amongst Us

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