The young man or woman you meet in shul or at a social event doesn't seem much different than your typical thirty something. Every shul, and community has at least a few--a working guy who's in his late 30s or early 40s; a polished, professional woman who's been at the same job for quite some time. These individuals work hard to successfully and effectively manage their illness or disability. They truly defy the stereotype that people burdened with mental illness or developmental disabilities look or act a certain way. Their success behooves the greater Jewish community to reconsider black-and-white, stereotypical views. It is also the impetus for an innovative social-needs program. OHEL's Morris Pinsky a"h Simcha Program is a social-needs initiative.
The Morris Pinsky Simcha Program, now formally in its tenth year was officially launched by OHEL in 2006 with a benevolent gift from the Pinsky family. While the name of the program implies marriage and dating for marriage, the program embraces a broader perspective.
Until 2006, various Ohel staffers had been unofficially mentoring and coaching clients who wanted to take progress to the next level. They helped them increase their socialization skills and improve their dating skills. Giving them the ability to forge deeper connections.
Dr. Michoel Friend, a longtime psychologist with the agency remembers various individuals being supported by several of OHEL's programs approaching the agency to ask for assistance in dating and otherwise moving-on with life.
Individuals who proudly achieved increasing independence, thanks to housing and emotional needs being met now had the luxury of looking for a relationship. "We want to find a shidduch; a friend," Dr. Friend remembers them saying. These individuals yearned to interact on a deeper level like their siblings and cousins.
As the staff noticed the burgeoning need a formal program was created. But can people with serious mental-health issues really be supported and prepared to handle a serious long-term relationship of marriage? "Yes for those who can, and the next best thing for those who can't."
Thus, depending on who the Simcha Program is working with, opportunities provided have taken the form of social skills groups, relationship skills groups, and individual counseling. For those looking to date and possibly marry, the Simcha Program staff works closely with the individual and if appropriate with the individual's advocate or guardian in order to best ascertain their situation and needs. "Person-centered wishes are paramount," says Dr. Friend. "We work with them, their family or their team to help that the individual grow and gain skills--and not just skills but the concept: What is marriage? What is motivating them towards marriage?"
For men and women with disabilities seriously considering marriage, the Simcha Program regularly organizes singles events. Approximately, forty men and women first enjoy an 'icebreaker' introduction. Then a group activity is followed with an actual speed dating session. Each Simcha Program singles event concludes with participants having the opportunity to meet with prospective partners while staff respectfully facilitates the events.
"Quite a number of people are dating because of these events," says Simcha Program Director Sarah Kahan. But the bigger picture is the fact that people with mental illness or developmental disabilities have the same human need as anyone else for love, companionship and acceptance. The Simcha Program helps them attain those needs "through taking their requests and needs very seriously," says Mrs. Kahan, "by listening to what their needs are so they feel they are living as 'normal' a life as possible."
For those couples who do make it to the chuppah through the Simcha Program, the initiative provides a 'Circle of Support'. It includes case management, parental support, and the backing of medical and mental-health professionals. The professional team helps them cope with social stigmas, independent living, and the complexities of marriage. "Having someone to love and to be loved gives them something to look forward to. We've seen tremendous benefits," says Dr. Friend. "It gives them a fuller life."
Helping people with disabilities marry is only one goal.
The focus of the program in terms of 'success' is not about how many couples get married. The emphasis of the program is on helping clients achieve their life goals. The program is "not purely designed for people with issues to marry each other," adds Derek Saker, OHEL's Director of Marketing. "They can, should, and do date people without diagnosed issues."
The big picture being focused on by the Simcha Program Saker says, is marrying into the mainstream. "We not only wish to break down the stigma [of people with mental illness and developmental disability] in the community," says Saker, "but single people in the community should also look beyond what are often perceived as 'normal' parameters."
Contrary to the 'how could they possibly get married?' stigma, singles with disabilities should be judged on their merits, not their disabilities, believes Saker. "Many singles who have overcome disability or who are effectively managing their mental illness feel they are even stronger people for it, more sensitive, more caring, it has enriched their character ...and as such, should be seen as an even better catch compared to others."