In every state, when young people with disabilities reach high school graduation, they face a crisis that many in the disability community refer to as “falling off a cliff,” as it marks the abrupt end of most government-funded support services. In Illinois, there is currently a massive shortage in funding to support adults with disabilities, and at age 22 educational entitlements are completely cut off.
Fortunately, an organization called Keshet that serves the Greater Chicago Jewish community has a number of educational, recreational, vocational, residential and social programs for people with disabilities. Keshet has created a program called GADOL — Giving Adults Daily Opportunities for Living — that provides vocational training and places participants in customized employment in which their interests and skills are matched with a company that can use them.
Avi Goldfelder, the chairman of PharMore drugs LLC, a long-term healthcare pharmacy that serves assisted-living facilities in Illinois, Indianan and Wisconsin, first became connected to Keshet 25 years ago when his friend Charles Frankel, a founding member of the organization, encouraged him to start a young leadership committee. Goldfelder’s experience getting to know about Keshet’s mission completely altered the way he regarded people with disabilities.
“I used to have a hang-up when I saw a child with special needs. … I was afraid and didn’t understand,” he says. But as he volunteered time and energy serving Keshet, his perspective began to change. “Needs are not ‘special’ … needs may just be different,” he explained. Goldfelder has not only stayed connected with Keshet, he now serves as its chair of trustees.
However, it was not until seven years ago, when Keshet’s executive director Abbie Weisberg approached him about employing GADOL participants at PharMore, that Goldfelder feels he really began to understand the importance of the organization’s mission — and realize how his own business, which he owns with three other partners Ari Shabat, Ben Shabat and Sylvia Herlihy — could become an inclusive workplace.
His first employee with disabilities, Avi Lessor, who has Williams syndrome, has worked at PharMore for the last seven years. Lessor’s responsibilities include removing labels and sorting the myriad containers of medications returned from nursing homes to PharMore every day. “He’s made our work environment much better,” Goldfelder explains. “He’s happy. He’s funny. He interacts with everyone. And he is very, very qualified.”
Asked what he likes most about working at PharMore, Lessor says, “You get to meet people from all over and I have friends from all different places.” Goldfelder reports that Lessor not only feels proud of the work that he does, but clearly feels a sense of belonging among his co-workers.
Based on Lessor’s success, Goldfelder hired another employee with disabilities, Ethan Fishman, who has Fragile X syndrome. Ethan’s mother, Rebecca reflects on what the job has meant to her son: “Ethan feels pride each day as he goes to work on his own and arrives at the PharMore doors where he is greeted with smiles and amazing positive energy. He lights up when he arrives and is even more enthused to do the best work he can each day. The culture in this amazing place is truly special and something all organizations should model.”
PharMore has since hired an employee who has more significant support needs, and who comes to work with a job coach from Keshet. Goldfelder hopes to add more employees with disabilities and to continue his support for Keshet. “Just give them a chance,” he urges fellow business owners. “People deserve meaningful jobs and meaningful lives.”
Weisberg sees the impact of Goldfelder’s leadership on creating an inclusive workplace. “Inclusion works from the top down. In a volatile work environment, everyone is looking at the bottom line. A person like Goldfelder looks at how our young adults boost morale and how that positively impacts the bottom line.”