Focusing on the Needs of the Individual Through Supported Employment
The Center for Humanistic Change of New Jersey, at its establishment in the early 1980’s, operated as a small residential program serving individuals with disabilities. It ran three group homes and gradually expanded to provide additional services and supports within its northern New Jersey community. In the early 1990s, a shift occurred within the agency and within the sector as a whole. As Paul S. Kucinski, Associate Executive Director, described it, “As New Jersey began closing developmental centers, we were asked to serve four individuals needing assistance. We knew, based on history and the desires of those individuals, that traditional Day Programs that existed at the time would not suffice. So, we welcomed these individuals into our residential program and started providing new Day Hab services.”
From its start, CHCNJ centered its mission in every individual’s right and need to be actively, fully involved in their community. As the agency’s Day Habilitation programs expanded to meet participants’ needs, so did the scope of their philosophy in order to specifically highlight all peoples’ right to work as active, visible, productive members of the community. CHCNJ partnered with employers in the New Jersey communities they serve and built an employment program that allowed more individuals to work one-on-one with job coaches. In conjunction with this supported employment model, agency leadership continued to innovate and expand the scope of their programs.
Cones By Design, A Unique Employment Enterprise
One of these major developments was the 1993 establishment of Cones by Design, a gourmet ice cream shop serving seasonal flavors and custom ice cream cakes seven days a week, year round. CHCNJ built Cones by Design as more than just a store, but rather a space in which CHCNJ’s mission could be embodied by staff, volunteers, and customers alike. For staff and volunteers, it’s a place to learn new skills, build community relationships, and a place where individuals with developmental disabilities can work as an active, visible, productive member of the community. The training and service models allow workers to learn as many skills as possible, by design. “Many individuals that work at Cones By Design see this as a place to work forever. Others learn skills and can take those skills to other places,” said Mr. Kucinski.
The success of Cones By Design served as somewhat of a roadmap for building Re-Designs Thrift Shoppe, another employment-based enterprise started by CHCNJ in 2012. Like their ice cream shop, the thrift store centers the agency’s values through a skills development and supported employment program, constructed to promote independence community integration for the individuals they serve.
Managing and Addressing Change During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a variety of disruptions for service providers, creating a swift and considerable shift in the ways they can support their communities. In-person supported employment programs face a unique set of challenges while navigating how to safely operate as well as decisions about whether they are able to continue to do so during this time. A large-scale shift to remote work across the US has come into conflict with the necessity of in-person performance for some roles, such as the service positions in food service and retail that CHCNJ’s enterprises provide.
This also calls attention to the importance of social development, through work, that physical distancing challenges. Central to the models of Cones by Design and Re-Designs Thrift Shoppe are the values and mission of CHCNJ. They operate, above all, to support the engagement and growth of individuals with disabilities in their New Jersey community. Relationship-building, social interaction, and visibility are important tenets of this mission that are deeply challenged in a working model that must also prioritize distance for safety. For agencies like CHCNJ, the challenges of the pandemic require a reevaluation of how to most effectively meet the needs of the individuals they serve during this time, and preparation for adaptation as they move forward.