Nysha Recent News

Furthering Cultural Familiarity, Top OPWDD Official Revisits Hamaspik of Rockland

November 29, 2016

By Mendy Hecht, Hamaspik Gazette

Visit by Senior Advisor Michael Mascari Follows August Leadership Meeting on Housing

On Thursday, October 6, Michael Mascari, the disability industry leader now serving as Senior Advisor to OPWDD Acting Commissioner Kerry A. Delaney, visited Hamaspik again.

The visit—the Senior Advisor’s second personal appearance at Hamaspik of Rockland County—took place this time on the premises of the agency’s Wannamaker Briderheim IRA group home.

Mr. Mascari had visited Hamaspik for his first time this summer, enjoying a working luncheon at Hamaspik of Rockland County headquarters on August 8th as part of a “get-to-know-you” personal outreach tour of leading disability non-profits statewide.

That meeting, at which Mascari met with Hamaspik leaders from Kings, Orange and Rockland Counties, touched heavily on the ever-pressing need for disability residential housing.  Hamaspik of Orange County was recently tapped by the OPWDD to build two new group homes in the village of Kiryas Joel after extensive and independent community parental outreach to the agency.

But what’s true for families affected by disability in “K.J.,” as it’s informally known, holds likewise true for disability-affected families statewide.  The demand for individual placement in Individualized Residential Alternative (IRA) group homes significantly exceeds current supply.  In a related vein, a new OPWDD-funded grant for non-profits in Region 3 (greater Hudson Valley) will fund “transitional services,” but only addresses non-permanent housing for people with high-function disability.

Indeed, Brooklyn and Monsey families respectively served by the Hamaspik of Kings or Rockland County agencies need placement of their own loved ones living at home with equal urgency—with a total of over 100 individuals on their combined waiting list.

At the same time, both independent agencies have applied to their local DDRO for approval of immediate new IRA placements for eight young men and eight young women who present as placement priorities.

And to get a first-hand feel for what meeting those needs might look like in Hamaspik’s constituent community, and to further personal acquaintance with the nuanced culture in which it is steeped, Mr. Mascari paid a personal visit to the gentlemen who call the Wannamaker Briderheim home, and right in the comfort of their home.

Cultural community living ‘year-round

The Senior Advisor arrived at the scheduled time of 11:00 a.m. on an unusually sunny and warm October morning—perhaps reflecting the balmy and convivial atmosphere to soon follow.

At the door to greet him at the stereotypically suburban cul-de-sac home were Home Manager Joel (Feish) Horowitz—along with several of the gentlemen that he and his team support ‘round-the-clock.

The young men present said hello to Mr. Mascari in their inimitable ways, followed by the OPWDD official touring the home and looking in on bedroom and backyard alike.

Helping expand the OPWDD leader’s familiarity with faith-based individual-centered community living, a critical component of the state agency’s ongoing push for its own cultural competence, was the following Hamaspik staff demonstration of Jewish religious rites, rituals and items that are part of the just-passed Sukkos holiday—and of Jewish holidays around the year.

Sukkos (lit. “Booths” or “Huts”) is marked in Orthodox Jewish communities by the eating of most meals—and, in most denominations, by sleeping most nights—in a sukkah, a temporary and foliage-bedecked outdoor shelter that symbolizes God’s all-encompassing protection.

Sukkos is held each year at the juncture of summer and fall (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) to align, as it has since Biblical times, with the end of the harvest.  It’s based on a Torah (Bible) commandment to “dwell in booths for seven days.”

As such, Wannamaker had its own sukkah set up on its backyard deck, bedecked per custom with festive decorations on wall and ceiling alike, and well before the holiday’s onset.

Before getting into the sukkah, Hamaspik’s visitor was shown an esrog, the citron fruit held during special prayers on the holidays.  The gentleman displaying the fruit was all too happy to show off his personal purchase—one of several made by each of his fellow residents in keeping with their community-integrated cultural and religious supports.

An integral part of the communal spirit come Sukkos is showing up at one’s local synagogue brandishing a quality esrog (along with its lulav—more on that later)—not just fully participating in the rituals as the accepted member of the community that one is, but, of equal if not more importance, feeling like one is part of the community, esrog and all.

It’s that total mainstreaming that Hamaspik, with its community-situated IRAs, has long pushed for.

Once within the sukkah’s cozy and shady walls, Mr. Mascari was treated to a demonstration of the lulav, the unopened palm frond that is part and parcel of the four-part sukkos “bouquet” that includes the esrog (and myrtle and willow twigs).  He also took in a good number of wall decorations personally crafted by the residents—allowing them to almost-literally lend their signatures to the sukkah and make it truly their own.

Rounding out the demonstration of ‘round-the-year cultural integration, Manager Horowitz literally rolled out a handwritten parchment Megillas Esther (Book of Esther) scroll that is recited on the early-springtime holiday of Purim.  An engrossed visitor stood appreciatively by.

A resident then blew a shofar, the ram’s horn whose inimitable call is an indelible part of the Rosh Hashanah services, and the Manager showed Mr. Mascari authentic matzah—the handmade, rapidly-baked flatbreads that are central to Passover.

The demonstration reflected the detailed cultural nuances of Orthodox Jewish community living made possible by Hamaspik’s group homes for Orthodox Jewish individuals with disabilities—nuances to which, should they be residing elsewhere, “they might get symbolic exposure,” noted a Wannamaker staffer on hand, “but they wouldn’t be living it.”

Experience-driven leadership

Following a group photo outside Wannamaker’s front door, Mr. Mascari and his hosts sat down to lunch in Wannamaker’s dining room.

The hour-long discussion that followed dwelt on several key subjects. 

Chief among them was Family Care, a long-running OPWDD program in which Hamaspik is the state’s largest non-profit provider.  In Family Care, families take in children with special needs as their own and are supported with monthly stipends currently based on a five-level Difficulty of Care scale.

Reflecting the agency’s reputation of trust and authority within OPWDD circles, the VIP guest requested that Hamaspik leadership produce a proposal for fresh ideas on revitalizing and reinvigorating Family Care such that more families might consider joining—and that the entire program might attain new levels of economic efficiency.

One Family Care snafu brought up by Hamaspik founder and Rockland County Executive Director Meyer Wertheimer is the fact that, by current regulation, program providers are automatically disqualified from benefiting from After-school Respite (ASR).  That program gives much-needed school-day breaks to parents of kids with special needs.

“Just because a person is placed in someone’s house, doesn’t mean they should be barred from services they would get in their own family,” Mr. Wertheimer pointed out.  The agency founder also noted the vast amounts of unpaid work that Hamaspik’s Family Care providers devotedly invest into caring for their beloved charges—especially when the frequently medically-involved children endure prolonged and/or repeated hospitalizations.

The group also spent some time discussing some major watershed changes coming to the state’s public-private disability supports industry in coming years—changes in which, Mr. Mascari noted repeatedly, Hamaspik is uniquely positioned to play a leadership role.

Discussion likewise dwelled on the OPWDD’s “Amendment 01” submission to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) outlining the state agency’s compliance plan for the new federal Conflict Free Care Coordination (CFCC) model.  Under its upcoming CFCC plan, the OPWDD will be tapping two provider agencies per each state region.

“Your experiences will help inform a decision,” Mr. Mascari informed the Hamaspik contingent.

According to the OPWDD advisor, Hamaspik was proactively mentioned, as the major player that it is, behind the state agency’s closed doors as one of the few non-profits ready, willing and able to take a lead in the pending changes in how the state provides disability services.

“I don’t get a lot of strong leadership coming from the voluntary sector,” he said.  “You’re an exception.”