Helping differently-abled children and their families
By Ilan Preskovsky
Founded in 2009 as a response to the lack of residential and vocational services and appropriate accommodation for Jewish adults and children with disabilities in Chicago, the not-for-profit Libenu Foundation has, in less than a decade, exploded in reach and depth far beyond what anyone might have first expected of it. It all began when Shana Erenberg, a nationally renowned expert in education and disabilities, teamed up with Debra Silverstein, Alderman of the 50th Ward of Chicago (which, for those of us non-Americans, is something along the lines of a mayor of a particular district in Chicago), to do what many saw as “impossible”, but, as Shana says: “Through hard work, perseverance, dedication, and a staunch refusal to accept the status quo, we were able to change the landscape for Jewish individuals with disabilities and their families in Chicago.”
What started as a pipe dream in the hearts and minds of its two founders quickly grew into something that was so successful that it would be emulated by countless communities throughout the United States.
Prior to the establishment of Libenu, families of children with disabilities would have to leave Chicago and head to the east coast to get the kind of support they needed, so untenable was the situation there. Libenu, which means “Our Hearts” in Hebrew, quickly changed that, as one innovative programme led to another, and Chicago is now an immeasurably better place for those with disabilities and their families.
As parents of adult children with disabilities are comforted by the fact that their children will be cared for even after they’re gone and siblings are alleviated of the often costly and time-consuming burden of caring for their brothers and sisters, the adults with disabilities themselves are able to live “independently, with dignity and respect, as fully included members of the Jewish community”. Libenu has also expanded to offer the Lev Chicago Respite programme (in partnership with Jewish Child and Family Services) for younger children with special needs, offering them fun, educational after-school activities with other children that both prevent them spending countless hours bored and lonely at home, and enhance the lives of their families who would otherwise end up dedicating very nearly all of their energy to the disabled child, often at the cost of their own relationships and personal needs.
Libenu is run by a group of professionals and parents, and, by partnering with various organisations in Chicago, it has grown to include more and more programmes to better enhance the lives of their clients, their families, and the Chicago Jewish community as a whole. Recently, it received a major Breakthrough Grant from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago to expand its “respite” programme to older children as well. It has opened four houses for adults with disabilities in just twice that amount of time and offers educational and vocational programmes to allow their adult clients to contribute to the wider society and earn at least enough money to give them a real sense of independence and self-sufficiency.
It’s also crucial to note that, though Libenu offers its services to all Chicago Jews regardless of religious-observance level or denomination and, indeed, is even open to non-Jews, it prides itself on being based on Torah values. As Shana puts it: “Our organisational values are rooted in Jewish concepts of fairness, inclusion, justice, and love, [and] our homes and programmes are all kosher and shomer Shabbat and Yom Tov, but they are open to all, regardless of race, religion, or orientation.” The concept of all people being created “B’tzelem Elokim” (in G-d’s image) is central to the ethos of Libenu, both in the dignity of people with disabilities and the value of the wider community having greater interaction with its differently-abled members.
Libenu has been such a success that it has been recognised by two prestigious organisations, Upstart Accelerator and Slingshot, for being “one of the most innovative and inspiring Jewish non-profits in the world” and, more importantly, have inspired other communities throughout the United States to emulate it, working off the guidance and advice of Libenu itself.
We have a number of different, incredible organisations for members of our own community with disabilities, but there is still much for even the South African Jewish community to learn from Libenu. For more information, visit their website: https://libenu.org