by Meredith Jacobs
Continuing our profiles of the 10 ConnectGens fellows, this week we meet social entrepreneurs hoping to create programs that will help adults living with autism, provide support to Israel's lone soliders and connect hopeful volunteers find global service projects. To read previous articles written about the ConnectGens program and its fellows, go to washingtonjewishweek.com.
Lisa Gerton, Living Independently with Autism (LIA), JFGH.org
Gerton, 27, is our first intrapreneur, meaning she is creating a program that will be under the umbrella of an existing organization, in this case the Jewish Foundation of Group Homes. While working as a development associate, Gerton's colleagues at JFGH encouraged her to apply for a ConnectGens fellowship to further the development of LIA, the Living Independently with Autism program.
There is a growing cohort of adults with autism who have a variety of social, recreational, behavioral and emotional needs that must be addressed. Gerton explains that these needs have gone unmet in the Greater Washington area. "For children with autism, there are publically mandated educational services. But as they get older, they are left with fewer opportunities," Gerton explained. LIA would provide the necessary support for individuals and their families so they can more comfortably assimilate into adult life and community.
The new JFGH program would be modeled after its other programs and best practices they have discovered. LIA participants will be JFGH clients, meaning they will be part of either the residential or MOST (Meaningful Opportunities for Successful Transition) program. "Because each individual has specific needs, we need to create individualized programs that address specific needs and focus on personal preferences and identified constraints," Gerton explained.
Janet Wintrol, director of Ivymount School, serves as Gerton's mentor and consultant Alex Schual-Berke as her coach.
Funding is needed for LIA for staff, consultants and training. "The funding we get from the state doesn't cover all of our program costs," Gerton explained.
Ricki Meyer, The Lone Soldier Project, thelonesoldierproject.com
Meyer, 24, who works in the office of legislation and congressional affairs at the Department of Education, was in Israel last summer with the Federation of Greater Washington's leadership mission for Birthright alumni. "We were having lunch with soldiers. One lone soldier said 'I sense the absence of my family on Friday afternoons when the army passes out care packages.' "
Lone soldiers are non-Israeli members of the IDF. It is more difficult for people overseas to send packages every week. "It's like overnight camp, when everyone gets packages and you don't," Meyers said. "I thought, there's clearly something we can do about this."
Meyers reports that there are approximately 5,700 young men and women who voluntarily leave their families to serve with the IDF. It is her hope that The Lone Soldier Project will be their voice outside of Israel to let people know who they are and how we can support them.
Not looking to re-invent the wheel, Meyers is working closely with the Lone Soldier Center in Jerusalem, a support system that also provides holiday and Shabbat meals. She hopes the Lone Soldier Project will help in three ways - encourage people to write letters or send emails to the soliders, hold events to raise awareness and hold events that will raise funds or collect items needed by the soldiers. These items will be delivered to the soldiers by area residents visiting Israel on a mission or similar trip. "The army provides basics. They need more than what's provided," Meyers explained.
"The greatest need is there isn't enough knowledge outside of Israel about lone soldiers. We just sent over a package of helmet lights and Gatorade powder. It was so appreciated. A letter is so easy to write and is so appreciated," Meyers said. She has met with many former lone soldiers who share the importance of these missives from home.
Miriam Katz from the Embassy of Israel serves as Meyers' mentor and attorney Wendy Rudolph is her coach.
She was to have a happy hour fundraiser planned for May 30 (check her website for future events) and hopes to inspire not just parents, but also b'nai mitzvah kids looking for a tzedakah project to get involved with Lone Soldier Project. "My wallet only goes so far," she said.
Zachary Wenner, NetaMap, netamap.com
When Wenner, 24, who works in finance for HFF, L.P., wanted to participate in a service trip to the developing world, he found the information scattered and the assortment of testimonials disorienting. He ultimately spent six months in Trinidad and Tobago with Habitat for Humanity.
"I kept thinking that there were very specific things I would like to pass on to the next round of volunteers - from practical guidance (when taking corrugated sheet metal from a loading truck, place a shirt/towel between your shoulder and neck so you don't scrape yourself) to more general advice on interacting with the local workers whom we engaged with on the program.
This wasn't exactly information I would put on a testimonial, and it was too obscure to even have in a conversation to someone looking to sign onto the program. And, for all I knew, there was someone on a similar program in a different part of the world who could have benefited from my advice if there were a place to look," he explained.
This was the inspiration for NetaMap (Neta meaning "to plant" or "seedling" in Hebrew). Wenner explains that every year, the channels to positively engage with impoverished peoples around the globe continues to diversify, to broaden in scope and variety. NetaMap will track and record those efforts, placing project and service trips on a world map and providing a profile for the project and its participants. Netamap will allow organizations to collaborate within a region, enable individuals to easily and naturally share information, learn about programs and collaborate about future projects.
"Take the example of a service trip going to Senegal. A tab will be placed onto a world map with their location. Throughout the trip, people can upload pictures and write notes about their experience. They can share what went well, what didn't, what they would have done differently, and what still needs to be done. In this way, information is retained and passed on from one trip to the next, across regions and programs in a way that is honest, direct and interactive."
Additionally, progress can be mapped in a visual way. Users can upload their own "maps" to shed light on the way they see the area and how it can change for the better.
Mentor Steve Keller and coach Lauren Weinstein are supporting Wenner in his quest. Fundraising is imperative to develop a website that is easy to navigate, but also compelling.