Success stories step through Open Hearts/Open Doors

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Max Forman stands in the yard of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, listening to the carefree laughter of children at play.

It's a sound the JCC's special needs coordinator — who has worked with mentally and physically challenged youth for 25 years — says he has learned never to take for granted.

"Helping the kids everybody else has given up on: This is what it's all about," says Forman, motioning toward a group engrossed in a game of "Simon Says."

Many of the children in the playground have come to the JCC through the center's Open Hearts/Open Doors Program. Under Forman's guidance, the project enables physically and mentally disabled kids to join other youngsters in center activities.

Launched several years ago with a seed grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Kohn Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the program, which recently received a $7,500 Kohn grant, is free to parents.

Michael Jacobs, chair of the Kohn Fund's advisory committee, says the program's emphasis on integration and belief that "no disabled child be turned away" impressed his committee.

Forman says the process of identifying special-needs children and matching them to appropriate center activities is accomplished by working with the Bureau of Jewish Education, Jewish Family and Children's Services and the San Francisco Unified School District.

Last year, through these efforts, 100 special-needs youngsters experienced a range of pre- and after-school sessions, youth classes, sports leagues and summer-camp programs. Nondisabled students also became sensitive to issues special-needs kids face.

"Disability awareness education is central to our program," says Forman.

Forman also works with the SFUSD's Transition Opportunity Program. Through that, he arranged for three disabled high school students to become interns with the Open Hearts/Open Doors Program. The teens, who receive class credit and financial compensation from their schools, work 15 hours a week helping JCC teachers with special-needs children in after-school programs.

On such intern is 16-year-old Brandy Fontenot of McAteer High School in San Francisco. Fontenot has been with the program since March and works with kindergarten and first-grade classes. She helps with homework and art projects, and in planning field trips.

Fontenot, who is African American, says her internship taught her a great deal about Judaism. "I've really enjoyed learning about Jewish religion…I especially love Shabbat, which we celebrate with the kids every Friday."

Also working with the program is 20-year-old Shawn Seliber, who came to the JCC as a Kohn summer intern, another program supported by the Kohn Fund and administered by Jewish Vocational Services.

The San Francisco State University student is helping Forman develop a resource guide to disabled children's services in San Francisco. The guide will accompany an existing JCC-produced manual on a range of mental and physical disorders.

Forman says some 10 percent of American children have special needs; 38 percent attend high school but do not graduate, while many of those who do cannot find work.

"That's why programs like this are so important," he says.

Yet Forman warns that there is a dangerous tendency for parents of disabled youth to be in denial, and thus be afraid to seek assistance for their children.

"We are all just one step away from being disabled," Forman says. "The important thing is to work at living together."

Forman believes this is a learning process that works at the JCC.

"Success stories are happening here every day," he says.