Sandra Leshaw is the director of Re-Launch Career Services under the basic needs umbrella of Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey (JFCSNNJ), which provides career readiness coaching and training to adults in search of jobs. She is also coordinating JFCSNNJ’s newest initiative, the “RAISE” program for adults on the autism spectrum. Leshaw holds an MBA in industrial organizational psychology combined with a business background. She is working closely with Jessica Fleischer, LCSW and JFCSNNJ COO, who holds a master’s degree in social work, is a licensed clinical social worker with an extensive background in operations and mental health, and a JFCSNNJ clinician with extensive relevant experience.
“Clients who are on the autism spectrum often encounter substantial barriers to employment and we wanted to help. Just revising a resume or coaching these individuals on typical interview skills would not be enough. So we started looking at existing programs and discovered RAISE in Orlando under the auspices of the Jewish Federation,” explained Leshaw.
With 10 years of successful experience, RAISE (Recognizing Abilities & Inclusion of Special Employees) has been a highly effective program, employing neuro-diverse individuals in two part-time jobs. Participants are accompanied by volunteer job coaches and participate in weekly lunch-and-learn meetings focused on social skills in the workplace.
Leshaw noted, “We met with the founder and the director of the RAISE program in Orlando and decided to move ahead with a 2024 pilot program here in New Jersey through JFCSNNJ.”
According to Leshaw, a candidate for the RAISE program is “… an individual who is 18 years or older with a developmental disability who has encountered barriers to employment. The RAISE employee is someone who, after the nine-month program detailed below, would be able to hold a part- or full–time entry level position.” She also said that there is an interview and selection process in which RAISE staff meet with candidates together with their family liaison who is often, but not always, one of the parents.
Leshaw explained the details of the program, noting that “We are starting with four RAISE employees for this pilot program, which will run for nine months beginning in early 2024.”
JFCSNNJ will pay each RAISE employee for seven hours per week: three hours at each of their two jobs and one hour for the lunch-and-learn training where the focus will be on social skills in the workplace. The training will take place at the JFCSNNJ office in Teaneck and run by a licensed professional counselor.
Lunch-and-learn sessions will also be an opportunity for the RAISE employees to work together and socialize as a group. “We are currently vetting both the RAISE candidates as well as job site locations to find the right matches,” said Leshaw.
She continued, “We have secured volunteer job coaches who will accompany each RAISE employee to each job for the length of the program. There will be different job coaches for each job plus several substitute coaches to ensure back-up. The family liaison, typically mother, father or guardian, is integral to the program in that they are kept abreast weekly of progress and are responsible for ensuring the RAISE employee gets to and from their jobs and the weekly lunch- and-learn program, and is a responsive contact. Participants are ‘RAISE employees,’ as they will be part-time employees of JFCSNNJ while they are enrolled in the program.”
Asked whether there is a fee for the program, Leshaw responded, “There is no fee to the RAISE employees, their families or the companies or organizations at which they work. JFCSNNJ is self-funding this pilot year of the program, and the job coaches who accompany the RAISE employees at their jobs are volunteers.”
Leshaw shared the multiple benefits and goals of the program. “The JFCSNNJ RAISE program hopes to successfully provide real life work experience to each of the four RAISE employees. We anticipate that being paid for their work, each will celebrate a level of achievement and confidence perhaps not experienced previously.” The overall experience will serve to prepare each RAISE employee for future employment through the robust weekly curriculum that comprises the social skills component.
“Additionally, I will work with each RAISE employee to create a resume that reflects their RAISE jobs. We will also provide interview skills training, having worked closely with the Kessler Foundation’s Center for Autism Research, whose focus is on a strength-based intervention to improve job interview skills for young adults,” said Leshaw.
For additional information or to apply for the RAISE program, contact Leshaw at (201) 837-9090, ext. 225 or email [email protected].
Ellie Wolf is a staff writer and also a national board certified senior fellow biofeedback practitioner, providing services in two local psychology practices. Specialties include anxiety and panic disorder, insomnia, pain and chronic pain, hypertension and GI issues.