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Living the ‘Chai Life’

Jewish Association for Community Living celebrates 36 years

By Stacey Dresner

WEST HARTFORD – Thirty-six years ago the Jewish Association for Community Living (JCL) was founded to provide independent housing for developmentally disabled adults in West Hartford.

On Thursday, Oct. 18, JCL will celebrate this “double-chai” anniversary year with the “Living the ‘Chai’ Life at JCL” gala at The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford.

“It’s gonna be great,” said David Schuster, who lives in the JCL-operated group home on Arapaho Road in West Hartford.

Nicknamed “The Mayor” by some of his friends for his outgoing personality, Schuster is a shining example of how JCL provides safe, independent homes for local adults with developmental disabilities. Along with fellow residents and staff, he will attend the Oct. 18 gala, which will begin with a cocktail reception at 5 p.m. and will feature dancing to a DJ as well as a raffle. WFSB newscaster Kara Sundlun will serve as the evening’s host.

JCL Executive Director Denis Geary said they are hoping for more than 200 attendees to come to the gala to help support the organization.

“It’s meant to be a celebration but really doubles as a fundraiser that we do only every five years,” Geary said.

The gala celebration is not only being presented by JCL, but also by three families that have been exceptionally supportive of the organization: The Bialecks, the Harold L. Rothsteins, and the Scharrs.

“As JCL celebrates living the ‘Chai life,’ we want to thank all those over the decades who have shown confidence enough in our mission and our work to share their talent, time and treasure,” Geary said.

The Jewish Association for Community Living got its start in June 1979 when Marlene Scharr of West Hartford convened a meeting of local parents to discuss options for children with developmental disabilities. Scharr’s daughter Elizabeth was born with Down syndrome in 1966. Her daughter was still quite young when she founded JCL, but she was concerned about Elizabeth’s future.

“The question, which most everyone who has a child with a developmental disability has, was what happens to my child when I am no longer here? That was a question that really started it all,” Scharr said. “Not only that, but you want your child to be included as you would your child without a developmental disability.”

Scharr was serving on the board of Greater Hartford Association of Retarded Citizens (now HARC) and was a member of the organization’s first committee for residential homes, which sought government funding to set up group homes throughout the state.

Long active in the local Jewish community, Scharr and her group, the Committee for the Developmentally Disabled, brought the idea of Jewish housing for the developmentally disabled to the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.

Three years later, in 1982, the Jewish Association for Community Living was incorporated. Funded by private donations and a grant from the Federation’s Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, JCL purchased a property on Arapaho Road in West Hartford Center, where it opened its first kosher group home in 1983, followed by two others in the years following.

Since then, JCL has branched out to provide supported living services for individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities living in their own apartments or condos. JCL provides daily support for these adults, depending on how much assistance they need.

David Schuster, who will turn 40 on Dec. 30, has lived in the JCL home on Arapahoe Road for the past 12 years. Four days a week David rises, makes himself breakfast and then gets ready to go to work. He is employed at Reid & Riege, a law firm in Hartford, where he does a variety of things, including shredding papers, sending boxes, doing faxes – “doing everything,” he says.

“It makes me feel very good that there are friends there that like me,” he said of the law firm’s staff. “They are personal friends of mine.”

On the weekends Schuster hangs out with his friends at home or enjoys the special needs programming at the Mandell JCC.

His mother, Patty Schuster, says that JCL has been a blessing in the lives of her son and his family.

“He really has flourished, there is no question about it. He just has made a tremendous amount of progress,” she says.

David Schuster was diagnosed at four-and-a-half years old with Williams Syndrome, a  developmental disorder characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability or learning problems and sometimes health problems.

“You hear worst case scenerios – he’ll never do this, he’ll never do that,” Patty Schuster said. “My husband I always wanted David to live independently. He has a wonderful job. He has a fabulous social life; he participates in Special Olympics and Best Buddies, and the JCC Special Needs program. He does an advocacy program. His life is really quite full. That’s what I wanted for him.”

“Mom is a great woman. She is like the best woman in the world,” Schuster gushed when asked about her. He talks to her every day on the phone and usually has dinner with her once a week or so, “unless he’s busy,” Patty Schuster said. “But he likes to go back to the group home. That’s his home and I think that is where he is most comfortable. JCL is a wonderful agency and the staff is wonderful. They are very hands-on.”

Late last month, David Schuster and his housemates decorated the sukkah in their own home’s backyard with the help of volunteers from JTConnect’s Teen Philanthropy & Leadership Institute.

“This is our lovely backyard,” David said, before going into the sukkah. “We put stuff up here, like grapes and other stuff.”

On Thursdays, he goes to Manes & Motions, a stable in Middletown for horseback riding.

“I wear a helmet on my head so I don’t get hurt,” he said. “It’s me and Elizabeth. She goes too. She’s funny. She makes me laugh.”

Elizabeth, who has lived at Arapahoe Road since 1988, is the daughter of JCL founder Marlene Scharr. The Scharr family is one of the families presenting the gala.

“When I got the notice of the gala, I couldn’t believe it has been 36 years. It went fast,” Marlene Scharr laughed.

“Marlene is the woman who, deservedly so, gets most of the credit for gathering people to get JCL started in the late ‘70s,” Geary said. “She got the Federation and the Foundation and some other community leaders and some parents, and basically created JCL.”

And it is the Jewish community that Scharr gives much thanks to.

“We had a wonderful Jewish community that was extremely supportive at the time. We had fundraisers; we would have kitchen tours and wine and cheese [parties]. It was just incredible support from the Jewish community.”

She also credited the board for keeping JCL going and Denis Geary and the staff.

“The organization itself couldn’t exist without the community behind it and with the staff that we have, i.e., Denis and the hands-on staff, many who have been with JCL for many years.”

The family of Harold Rothstein, including his wife Marilyn, daughter Janice – clinical director at Jewish Family Service – a past JCL board president, is also a presenting sponsor.

“Several of our residents get their clinical mental health services from JFS,” Geary said. “We have always had a very strong relationship with JFS.”

Also sponsoring the gala is the Bialeck family. Janet Bialeck was one of JCL’s original residents living in the Arapahoe Road home. Although she is in her late 70s and living in Federation Square, JCL still provides services to her every day.

“We don’t just do this for short periods of time. We have people for a lifetime,” Geary explained. “So we have been supporting her since 1983. She lives in Federation Square in her own apartment but she still gets staff support from JCL every day. And her parents, her mom, Sophie, who is 104, and her late father Ray also started our first endowment. They founded two JCL endowments, and we like to recognize them for that. They did that back in the day when nobody knew what JCL was and we were in our infancy. Ray was on the board and the Bialeck family, including Janet’s brothers, Alan and Richard, have been very generous supporters of JCL.

“We provide a lifetime of support,” Geary added. “Janet Bialeck has been with JCL for 35 years. We have folks in their 20’s who conceivably could be with JCL for 50 years. Our current age range is 22 to 83. JCL provides families peace of mind knowing their family member will be looked after for their lifetime.”

Including David Schuster, whom Geary calls a “great ambassador” for JCL.

“I love this house. I would never live anywhere else,” David said. “This is my house and it always will be. I think every day that I am proud that I am living here.”

CAP: David Schuster stands in the sukkah of his JCL home on Arapahoe Road in West Hartford.

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