By Michael Orbach
With the opening of its newest group home, located at 545 Arlington Avenue in Cedarhurst, Ohel Bais Ezra now has four residences for the developmentally disabled in the Five Towns. The Brooklyn-based Jewish social service agency also recently opened an office complex at Beach 9th Street in Far Rockaway.
Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy was on hand for the event on Friday, Oct. 10.
The new residence, which officially opened on Sept. 18, has five bedrooms, three bath-equipped bathrooms, and a state-of-the-art sensory room. It was funded through the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disability and will house five adolescents with developmental disabilities taken from existing Ohel clients and new clients. Each room comes with its own flat-screen television upon request.
The residence also boasts a culinary school-trained cook, leading one reporter to wonder if he should move out of his parents’ home and into the residence (the question was rendered moot because there are no beds left – three individuals are already in residence and two more are expected after Sukkot).
Ohel’s CEO, David Mandel, who was at the event, said the Ohel organization now has five bases: the Five Towns, Brooklyn, Queens, Teaneck and Englewood.
“We’re better than baseball,” he quipped.
The event was mainly in honor of Congresswoman McCarthy, a supporter of Ohel, who was given a leisurely tour of the facilities. The first stop was a drum kit set up near the kitchen, which is apparently intended to be a permanent fixture.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be paid to the facility is that with its exceedingly well-polished wood floors and a combination lock on the front door, it is perfectly indistinguishable from the houses next door.
Two parents whose children will live in the residence spoke proudly about their move to the group home, which each said was a difficult decision to make, but one in the best interests of their child. One mother spoke about the difficulty she faced in convincing her younger daughter that it wasn’t the daughter’s fault that her brother was going to a group home.
“‘It’s not your responsibility,’” the mother said she told her daughter. “A 12-year-old doesn’t change a 16-year-old’s diaper.”
Her daughter’s conscience was eased when she saw the residence’s freezer stocked with chicken nuggets, just like at home.
As with all such homes, safety is the biggest concern and most of the guided tour was spent discussing features like built-in screens and Wanderguards, a device that emits a high-pitched siren when one of the residents gets too close to the outside door (admittedly not very effective for the one adolescent who likes the noise). In the upstairs bedrooms, McCarthy, a former nurse, chatted with the parents about how often sheets need to be changed. As they spoke, a hand-drawn Elmo kept watch from a wall.
McCarthy said the issue of special needs is an important one for her because of her own life; she grew up with dyslexia and her son, Kevin, has a learning disability and a physical impairment. She has been relatively active in the Jewish social service world, and alongside a recent grant to Ohel, secured a $300,00 grant for Kulanu Torah Academy.
Yael Engelman, whose son is in the residence, said that the move was difficult, but she noted that her son is 16, a year younger than the typical age when many children go off to Israel for a year of study. She said the closeness of the residence to her home made the decision easier.
“The blessing of it is he’s a mile from home,” she said and explained that the week before she had driven over simply to drop off Shabbos shoes.
After the tour and a cup of coffee, McCarthy presented Ohel with a symbolic check for $399,500, which she and Congressman Anthony Weiner helped to secure for Ohel’s school based-service programs.
“I came from an age where, whatever your disability was, they would hide these children in their homes or in institutions,” Congresswoman McCarthy said. “We have found with the correct care and education a lot of these kids can reach a higher potential than anyone ever thought and I think, shouldn’t we do this for everyone?”
As the attendees made their way back to the dining room for refreshments, a whiteboard listed the dishes for the Friday night dinner hours away. Challah. Gefilte fish. Roast Chicken. Salad. Rice with onions and mushrooms.
It was a menu like in every other home.