‘The sky’s the limit’: Gesher Disability Resources working to meet needs of Jewish students with disabilities – The Arizona Republic

Posted By on April 11, 2022

When Rachel Stegman noticed her son was struggling inschool, she didn't want torepeathistory.

She'd had difficulties in school herselfbecause of what she now believes is undiagnosed autism. Her son, whom she described as "amazingly visual and artistic," experiencedsensory overload on top of challenges with executive functioning and keeping up with the assignments at his public school.

He was ultimately diagnosed with autism and later transferredto Pardes Jewish Day School, a private school near Scottsdale and Cactus roads. There, he had an Individualized Educational Plan, or IEP,and started receiving services from Gesher Disability Resources.

The organization wasstarted in 1985 under the name Council for Jews with Special Needs, with the aim of making typical Jewish activities and services more accessible to people with disabilities.

Executive director Amy Hummell said the organization has four focus areas education, religion, residential and social that all come together to help people lead "fuller lives" regardless of their different abilities.

Their programs currently includeSimchat Shabbat, anabbreviated and modified Shabbat service held at Congregation Beth Israel each month, social gatheringsand Jewish group homes for adults with disabilities.

In 2014, Gesher added education services to the mix, which Stegman said has "been great" for helping her son work to overcome learning challenges.Her 8-year-old daughter,also diagnosed with autism, will soon be gettingsimilar assistance.

Students in the program typically receive services twice per week, either in the form of Gesher teachers going to their school or students going to Gesher's suite in the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale, Hummell said.

Stegman said she appreciates the cultural understanding her children have gotten through Gesher.

Thoughher family is not religiously Jewish, she said she received "extensive" Jewish education growing up and that it's important thather childrenunderstand their heritage.

Gesher teachers, for example, are able to assist herchildren with Hebrew lessons, taking into account their learning differences and teaching them complex ideas in a way they can grasp.

Stegmansaid she revels in giving her children opportunities that weren't available to her years ago.

"If I had had this, I think I would be a lot better off today," she said.

Sheila Shafferwas working at Phoenix Hebrew Academy, which serves students from pre-school through middle school,in 2014when she identified six students who needed additional support. After being told the school could not provide a full-time special education teacher for them, Shaffer sought other ways to help.

The school contracted two Gesher employees to workwith the students,and with seed money that Shaffer obtained through a grant, she said the educationprogram "just blossomed."

She intended to retire last year after an education career spanning more than four decades, but Hummell persuaded her to officially join the Gesher team.She's been working as the organization's program specialist since July.

Each of Gesher's teachers are certified special education teachers with "all the credentials of a regular classroom teacher," Shaffer said. They work not only with students but also with teachers, helping them identify those with learning challenges and finding ways to assist.

As time went on, Shaffer said school enrollment numbers increased because of the newly-offered services for students with disabilities, and that the program eventually expanded to thehigh school levelso that those students could continue receiving the same support.

It made a huge difference, Shaffer said.

"I watched them come in as these little people and leave as these very capable, self-confident, organized, ready to conquer the world students who went to high school without as much fear," she said.

Gesher currently offers services at sixJewish day schools and is a qualified vendor with Paradise Valley Unified School District and Phoenix Union High School District.

What was once a six-student cohort has now become a 100-student caseload for Gesher, which now has four full-time and two part-time teachers.

And with the expansion of the program has come greater recognition and trust from the Jewish community, which has led to further opportunities for growth.

"It's kind of a two-way street now," Shaffer said. "It used to just be us going out, now people are calling and going 'Can you help?'"

Hummell said it "means the world" to provide services to students who may not have otherwise received them, helping them develop skills that will serve them throughout school and beyond.

"It's not justone plus one is two. It's why is one plus one two and taking it to the next level, because sometimes that's the biggest challenge," Hummell said. "There's memorization and then there's really understanding what they're trying to learn."

Hummell said Gesher is "mission-focused, mission-driven and quite frankly, mission successful."

"The teachers feel validated, the students feel validated, the parents feel validated, and I think when you have a specific community, like the Jewish community, being able to have trustworthy resources ... that's safety and security all wrapped up in a wonderful package," she said.

She hopes for the program to continue growing in order to meet the needs of all students, teachers and schools in the Valley's Jewish community.

"The sky's the limit," she said.

Reach the reporter at bfrank@arizonarepublic.comor 602-444-8529.Follow her on Twitter @brieannafrank.

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'The sky's the limit': Gesher Disability Resources working to meet needs of Jewish students with disabilities - The Arizona Republic

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