Category Archives: Initiatives

Social Thinking – Teaching Day School Students Beyond Academics

Pete SperberBy: Pete Sperber

We love working with kids. It’s who we are, it’s what we do. As Jewish educators, we dedicate ourselves to helping our students better access and benefit from the academic and social requirements of school. No matter my training and my experience, I continue to be pained by and to empathize with my students when I see them misread social cues; when they try so very hard to engage with their peers, yet fail; or when they hover on the outside of a social circle, wanting so desperately to be a part of the group. As our students take positive steps forward, we are simultaneously attuned to additional obstacles they may meet.

I am the School Social Worker at Boston’s Jewish Community Day School (JCDS). For years, I have been searching for a social curriculum to bring into my school, one that didn’t feel so scripted, full of “if… then…” hypotheticals. One that didn’t speak in universals, but that recognized the constant variability of social interactions. Simply put, one that felt organic.

Enter Social Thinking©.

On the advice of my department head, I began to look into the world of Social Thinking, and the approach, once I understood it more deeply, blew me away.

Social Thinking approaches the “social” from the basic concepts of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Social Thinking helps students learn, recognize, and understand how their behaviors and actions cause others to have thoughts about them, and in turn, how they each have thoughts about others based on the actions of their peers. Moving further, students explore how these thoughts that they have logically lead to feelings they have as well. Students learn to recognize and understand that behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are all connected, as they learn to try to achieve the results they desire. This process is in no way meant to be a shaming one. Similar to a grading rubric which helps students understand what will be expected of them, this process helps students understand how our actions and words affect others and ourselves in turn.

Gateways staff
What’s most exciting is the versatility of the Social Thinking process. As it is more focused on concepts than it is on lessons, the material is easily adapted by teachers to not only meet the needs of their specific class, but it can be integrated into almost any academic lesson. The seamless nature in which Social Thinking can be used allows for a more honest portrayal of social learning. Kids engage in social interactions throughout their day, not in pre-prescribed moments; so too should their social learning be universal and not merely in social “lessons.”

For children who are struggling more acutely with understanding the nuances of social behavior, Social Thinking offers a clear, grounding approach that aids and supports them in their growth. Through even minor conversations in which I’ve incorporated Social Thinking concepts, I’ve seen a relatively quick and seamless connection for these students. The ability to easily apply these core ideas to everyday interactions and to our students’ current experiences allows for a more personal relationship between the concept and the situation at hand. Social Thinking lends itself so wonderfully to a myriad of forms of integration – the teacher is limited by nothing less than his or her creativity. Additionally, the combination of more intensive, small-group instruction for those children who are struggling coupled with the larger, school-wide introduction of the Social Thinking concepts helps to normalize the complex, and at times confusing, world of social interactions. With that normalization, every student will feel more comfortable and empowered to work to improve his or her skills.

With a grant through Gateways, we are currently embarking on a three-year process of training every one of our teachers at JCDS in Social Thinking. The initial push-back I have received can mostly be attributed to the understandable teacher-angst of adding a new initiative to an already packed schedule. Yet within a few minutes of discussion of the Social Thinking concepts, the response tends to be “oh, well, I already do this!” Indeed, to a point, they do.

To me, one of the beauties of Social Thinking is how it gives vocabulary and accessibility to the quagmire of the intangible. Social Thinking provides the faculty with a clear framework of “hows” and “whats” in communicating with our students when we want to get at the awkwardness or challenges that we see in our students’ social interactions. Moving forward, we are excited to reap the benefits of addressing these important matters with our students. As the students mature, their social challenges increase in complexity; as they get to know and understand the concepts behind Social Thinking, we will be able to more quickly, honestly, and supportively get to the heart of their issues.

Pete Sperber is the School Social Worker for Boston’s Jewish Community Day School (JCDS) in Watertown, MA. His school is involved in a project of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education and funded by the Lebovitz Family Charitable Trust to bring the Social Thinking curriculum to Jewish day schools across Greater Boston.

Social Thinking© is a program that was developed in California over 15 years ago by Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP. Winner’s work and the materials she has created have become best practice and she is viewed as a national leader in the field.

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An Ideal School

Mitch RubinBy: Mitch Rubin

As a lifelong sports fan, watching my children pick up a racket or a mitt to compete is one of my great joys. So when my 13-year-old son Max stepped on the court as a starter for his middle school basketball team’s first-ever interscholastic game, I was bursting with pride.

Max has Down syndrome. He also has a wicked hook shot. At his school, both are recognized and celebrated.

The IDEAL School is the only private inclusion school in New York City. Our family and two others founded IDEAL in 2006, because we were unable to find an inclusive elementary school that could meet Max’s needs. The school’s mission is to create a diverse community that accepts and affirms the full identities of all people.

At IDEAL, inclusion and diversity are the driving forces behind the school’s program. Two-thirds of our students are neurotypical and one-third have learning differences. Small classes and co-teaching teams comprised of a general and special educator ensure that every child receives individual attention. Every student has an individualized curriculum. Students are never pulled out of whole class instruction to receive related services. Through differentiated instruction, all children learn the same subjects at the appropriate level, without any associated stigma. Our dynamic, content-rich academic program holds all students to high standards and challenges them to their full potential. Identity work and dialogue about differences are integrated into our social justice curriculum, so that all students embrace their own challenges, as well as their classmates’ differences.

Like every aspect of IDEAL’s program, its basketball team—the Pioneers—is neurodiverse. Athletes with disabilities have full membership alongside typically developing teammates and an equal opportunity to participate. Max’s coaches recognize his talents and coach to his strengths, not just his challenges.

That first game for the Pioneers, which was against a typical private school, was a momentous occasion for Max, for me and for The IDEAL School. Max was given the chance to shine in an area he excels and ended up the high scorer. But it was just as thrilling for me to watch the other ways inclusion played out on the court. The team’s starting point guard, a talented, competitive, and neurotypical athlete, maneuvered the court to involve all of his teammates, including those for whom the physical and cognitive demands of the game were quite challenging. He sees these teammates as partners, not token members. To him, this was just as important as winning the game. And when a girl with Down syndrome tossed the ball underhanded and scored, the entire gym erupted in a standing ovation, everyone recognizing how hard she had worked for this achievement.

At IDEAL, this type of collaboration, acceptance, and personal success happens everyday: in the classrooms, hallways, studios, and playing fields. Indeed, every time they take the court the Pioneers earn a victory– a victory for equity, for diversity and for inclusion. Being witness to that fills me with unending pride and gratitude.

Mitch Rubin is the President of the Board of Trustees and a Co-Founder of the IDEAL School of Manhattan – an inclusion K-8 school in New York City dedicated to creating a diverse community that affirms and accepts the full identities of all people, while inspiring academic excellence, creative leadership, and a desire to build a more just and equitable world. Learn more about the school on Facebook, join the conversation on Twitter or watch IDEAL on NOW with Alex Wagner.

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Siblings Need Support Too

Don Meyer is the director of the Sibling Support Project, a national effort dedicated to the interests of millions of brothers and sisters of people with special health, developmental and mental health concerns.  As the project’s director, Don has conducted more than 300 workshops in all 50 states as well as Canada, Guatemala, Ireland, Italy, Iceland, Turkey, England, New Zealand, and Japan.  His workshops and trainings have reached thousands of parents and providers have helped establish more than 390 Sibshops worldwide.

Below is an interview I conducted with Don about Sibshops and the need to support siblings of people with disabilities. Part II will be posted soon.
– Ephraim Gopin, Communications Director, Ruderman Family Foundation

Credit: Mike Houle

Credit: Mike Houle

What are Sibshops?

For the kids who attend them, Sibshops are pedal-to-the-metal events where they will meet other sibs (usually for the first time), have fun, laugh, talk about the good and not-so-good parts of having a sib with a disability, play some great games, learn something about the services their brothers and sister receive, and have some more fun. Sibshops are evidence of their loving concern for the family member who will have the longest-lasting relationship with a person who has a disability. Often, local agencies work with other like-minded agencies to cosponsor one Sibshop for all the brothers and sisters in a given community.

How did you get involved in the issue of siblings of people with disabilities?

Sibshops is an outgrowth of work I did with dads of kids with disabilities at the University of Washington (Seattle) in the late seventies. The university had many groups for parents of children with Down syndrome that were functionally called “mom groups.” My advisor advised me to get fathers involved, which I did along with a father of a child with Down syndrome.

As I began to run these groups, I began to realize more was needed for extended family members and not just parents. That’s how Sibshops got its start back in 1982.

Who facilitates Sibshops?

We like to have both family members and service providers as a part of the Sibshop leadership. We very much like having adult sibs as Sibshop facilitators. The facilitator who is a service provider will know about the needs represented in the group and about services available in the community.  Regardless of whether the facilitator is a family member or service provider, we seek certain qualities in a good Sibshop facilitator.  We want them to truly enjoy the company of kids and have had experience working with kids; to be especially good listeners; and to have the ability to convey a sense of joy, wonder, and fun.

Are Sibshops a form of therapy?

Sibshops may be “therapeutic” for kids to attend, but they’re not therapy.  Sibshops takes a wellness perspective.  They’re a celebration of the many lifelong contributions made by brothers and sisters of people with disabilities.


What’s so special about the sibling relationship?

The sibling relationship is life’s longest relationship.

1)     Anything you can say about being the parent of a child with a disability, you can pretty much put ditto marks around it for brothers & sisters. Studies have shown that sibling experiences parallel their parent’s experiences.

2)     Brothers and sisters will have the longest lasting relationship with the sibling with a disability, even longer than the parents. When parents aren’t there to look after the child, siblings will have to make sure the person with a disability lives a dignified life.

3)     Over the long haul, no one logs more minutes/hours with kids with a disability than siblings.

4)     No classmate in an inclusive classroom has a greater impact on the social development of a kid with a disability than their siblings.

This helps explain why I think supporting siblings is so important. Remember: parents receive more services and considerations than siblings do. That needs to be changed because the siblings will still be around long after the parents have passed on.

Don lives in Seattle with his wife, Terry DeLeonardis, a special education teacher and consultant and their  four children. Don is the senior author or editor of numerous articles and six books and received the 2007 Duncan Award from Children’s Hospital in Seattle for his work with families.  Don recently created a group for grandparents to connect with their peers. Enjoy this video about the importance of creating services for siblings.

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Sibling Journey

Renee Claire Eliana Sibs Journey croppedBy: Renee Frederick, Claire Nuchtern and Eliana Rosenthal

We met at Jewish summer camp in 2010 at Brandeis University. This summer, we decided to take the lessons we learned at our community-service oriented program that summer and turn them into action. We are three college students driving around the country interviewing siblings of individuals with developmental disabilities. This issue is dear to our hearts because two of us have siblings on the Autistic Spectrum. Before this trip, we found it incredibly hard to find diverse stories about how having a sibling with a disability affects other siblings. Funded by an “adventure” grant from Princeton University where Claire studies, we decided to broaden the narrative on the sibling experience by interviewing as many sibs as possible, ranging in age, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status. We began in Houston, Texas and are driving in a circle until we end up back there.

One of our favorite stories that occurred on the trip thus far is from New Orleans, where we interviewed two boys who are two thirds of a whole in a set of triplets. Their sister has autism and a seizure disorder. As we have seen many times, sibs seem to grow up much faster than other neuro-typical siblings, exhibiting maturity comparable to graduate school students or wise grandparents. The boys told us about how responsible they feel for their sister and how they stand up for her when others tease her, even when those others are adults from their church. They choose their friends based on whether or not they get along with their sister and they plan to care for her together for the rest of their lives. Their parents never prodded them to do any of this.

Renee Claire Eliana Sibs Journey IIThis is one of the more positive stories that we have heard, although we have also been witness this summer to a lot of the guilt, resentment, anxiety, and frustration that many times go hand-in-hand with being a sibling of someone with a disability. We have heard siblings say they want to care for their sibling for the rest of their lives. We have heard siblings say that once they are out of the house, they are finished. No one is to say which story is more valid or conventional as every story we listen to is drastically different from the one we heard earlier that day. Our goal is to broaden the narrative, see what services are available for siblings and where support services are lacking.

So what’s next? The easy answer is Claire will give a quick presentation at Princeton and Ellie will use the research for her psychology major. But, that is far from all. We have looked into the idea of writing a book, of starting youth clubs, of having a sibling conference. Our main goal is to provide a network of resources for sibs, of other sibs, organizations, and opportunities to share their stories. We believe that helping to build and strengthen a vast network of sibs would allow the community to become more outspoken advocates for themselves and their siblings.

Renee Frederick, Claire Nuchtern and Eliana Rosenthal are the Sibs Journey Team- three college students on a cross country journey this summer to learn more about what it is like to be a sibling of someone with a disability. Claire is at Princeton University studying history, Ellie is at Brandeis University studying Near Eastern Judaic Studies and Psychology, and Renee at University of Texas-Austin studying Plan II Honors and potentially Urban Studies or Public Health.  Follow their journey on their blog, read more on Facebook or connect with them on Twitter.

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The Right To Marry

The op-ed below was featured in The Times of Israel and was written by my wife  Shira, the Israel director of our foundation. Our foundation is partnering with the Feuerstein Institute to explore this issue and create a structure wherein people with developmental disabilities can get married.


shiraAmi and Sivan (not their real names) are getting married soon. They are attending sessions to practice communication and problem solving skills, undergoing bride and groom counseling separately, learning household management and budget planning, receiving sexual education. They are very happy together and cannot wait to begin their life’s journey in unison.

What you may not know about Ami and Sivan is that they are both people with a developmental disability. Go back for a second and reread the above paragraph. What do you think now?

The prevailing trend in Israel is to discourage people with a developmental disability from getting married, in many cases because of pre-existing prejudices. But people with developmental disabilities, like all of us, don’t want to be alone – they want to be socially active, to form relationships. We as a society do not have the right to intervene and tell someone they cannot start a family. We cannot deny people the freedom to be with someone else and instead condemn them to a life of loneliness.

The Ruderman Family Foundation has partnered with the Feuerstein Institute to create a formal structure whereby people with developmental disabilities can get married. We have formed a joint public committee which will hear from a wide range of leaders from different fields- judges, rabbis, lawyers and social workers among others. The State of Israel, represented by the Welfare and Education Ministries, will weigh in on the ramifications of encouraging marriage between people with disabilities. Their support and sanctioning these marriages will help create an atmosphere which will welcome these unions and aid a public awareness campaign we will launch soon.

Our partnership aims to establish contact with existing couples to prepare them for marriage, to provide a support system for the couples after marriage, to change public attitudes and to create a suitable legal infrastructure to uphold legal requirements. Rather than shying away from this conversation, we are bringing it to the forefront.

Continue reading the post on Times of Israel.

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Weaving a Tale of Inclusion

Nachum Kligmanby: Nachum Kligman

I never really thought of myself as a Dad of a “child with a disability.” I mean sure my son Moishy is technically a child with a disability since he lost oxygen at birth and has cerebral palsy and is in a wheel chair most of his day, but I just don’t see him as disabled. I see him as just one of my 6 amazing children.

But now, because of a fashion line I just launched, I am a Dad of a child with a disability.

It started a little more than a year ago when I saw my son, who is almost eleven, come home from school wearing a bib and I just felt that didn’t look right. An 11 year old kid should not be wearing a bib. Moishy has low muscle tone in his face and that causes him to drool, hence the bib. So I did a thorough search looking for a shirt that was:

  • Absorbent
  • Quick Dry
  • Anti-Bacterial
  • Anti-Odor
  • And super comfortable to wear all day long

It didn’t exist. So being an entrepreneurial type of guy I decided to create it. I searched for sample materials that fit what I needed and had many samples sent to me. I found the materials I wanted to work with, a bamboo/organic cotton blend. I hired a fashion designer to help bring my vision to reality. Now, after many long months, hundreds of hours of work and thousands of dollars invested, I am finally ready to launch.

The name of the Fashion Line is “Mianzi.” Mianzi means “bamboo” in Swahili and I loved the sound of the name, but it wasn’t until recently that I found out that Mianzi also means “A Face of Dignity and Prestige” in Chinese. Since our fabric comes from China and is made from bamboo, this became the perfect name.

Nachum Kligmn & MoishyThe shirts will not only feel comfortable but will add to people’s self-confidence: people with disabilities can get rid of their bibs and wear a “normal looking” shirt. Additionally, the shirt can be worn by anyone, whether they have a disability or not. People with disabilities will fit right in with everyone else.

I have been in the Hi-Tech Start-Up world for many years now and have built my reputation through hard work and determination. But I never promoted myself as a Father of a boy with a disability, because I just did not see myself as that and it was never relevant. It’s a bit weird for me, not something I was exactly ready for. Not that I ever tried to hide Moishy (he is a cute kid) or hide behind him, but it’s a bit weird to bring this out into the open and say “Hi, my son has a disability, can you help us?” But that is exactly what I’m doing. Do you know why? Because he is worth it.

Nachum Kligman is a serial entrepreneur and business consultant who loves to help start-ups through his site  His most recent project is Mianzi Fshion, the first luxury fashion line keeping people with disabilities in mind. He is currently running a Kickstarter Campaign, “Shirts to Drool Over…Literally” to raise enough money to begin production of the Mianzi shirts.

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Summer Camp- Fun and Sun for EVERYONE!

Howard BlasBy: Howard Blas

The month leading up to the camp season is action-packed, a bit stressful and most of all—exciting. In less than a month, hundreds of campers with a range of disabilities will arrive at Jewish summer camps across North America.  While the off-season is similarly busy with hiring staff, interviewing prospective campers, planning programs, attending conferences and staff trainings with Camp Ramah colleagues, it allows some time for reflection on our work, and for considering expansion, refinements and new directions—both within our own Ramah camping movement and in the larger Jewish camping world.

The entire Ramah community eagerly awaited the survey conducted by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and Laszlo Strategies called “Preliminary Research on Special Needs in Jewish Overnight Camp.” One key finding was that “the majority of those involved in camp – including staff, campers, and parents – care about this issue and agree that every Jewish child, regardless of a disability or special need, should be able to attend a Jewish camp.  Most involved prefer an inclusion model, with clear recognition that not every camp is able to serve every need…”

We in the Ramah camping movement have been providing overnight, day and family camping and vocational training opportunities to children and young adults with a wide range of disabilities since 1970, when the first Tikvah Program was started in Glen Spey, New York, and soon after relocated to Camp Ramah in New England in Palmer, MA.

Our experience in our eight Ramah camps in the US and Canada has shown the importance of offering a wide range of models and programs as “one size certainly does not fit all.” For example:
Breira b’Ramah at Ramah Berkshires offers a full inclusion program
Ramah Outdoor Adventure Program in the Rockies offers Tikvah, where campers with a range of disabilities participate in the same challenging outdoor activities (mountain climbing, horseback riding and more) as their neurotypical peers
Ramah California now has a dedicated Tikvah educator charged with creating inclusive opportunities for Tikvah campers and with educating the entire camp community about disabilities
Ramah Wisconsin offers camping and vocational training opportunities to campers with Asperger’s Syndrome and other disabilities alongside their neurotypical peers.  They share adjoining bunks, put on a joint play and more.

Camp RamahNow, Ramah Wisconsin is pleased to introduce Tzofeh, a full inclusion program for incoming 4th-6th grade campers, as well as for 7th-11th grade campers requiring additional support with a range of disabilities related to social skills, speech, language and executive functioning.

The FJC/Laszlo survey is a welcome reminder that there is still work to be done, and campers to be served.  We in the Jewish camping world should continue rising to the challenge of creating a range of programs offering different models and serving a wide range of disabilities.

We at Camp Ramah are proud of our 43 years of work in the field and we look forward to continuing to grow and serve.

Howard Blas is the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England and a consultant to the National Ramah Commission on special needs camping. Howard recently won the 2013 Covenant Foundation Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

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Celebrate An Inclusive Israel


by: Jay Ruderman

Today and tomorrow highlight life in Israel: Tragedy and triumph. Today is Israel’s Memorial Day, where we remember and shed tears for the 25,578 people who fell in defense of the country. Tomorrow we rejoice as we celebrate Israel’s 65th Independence Day, the amazing rebirth of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland.

Our foundation is proud to have Israel as a base of activities. Over the last five years, we have worked tirelessly towards the full inclusion of all Israeli citizens with disabilities into society. The latest studies estimate that there are approximately 1,000,000 people of working age with disabilities living in Israel- there is much work still to be done.


One program we are proud of is the AKIM program to allow youth with intellectual disabilities the ability to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Here is part of what we wrote when we awarded them the 2012 Ruderman Prize in Disability last year:

“For most young Israelis, service in the IDF is a normal part of life in the years between high school and college. Service becomes a core rite of passage in Israeli society and an empowering, transformative experience. AKIM is working now to make that experience open to people with intellectual disabilities, enabling them to perform significant supportive and productive tasks as part of IDF service. This project works with both the individual and the rest of the military unit to maximize adjustment and success.

Ultimately, inclusive IDF service will instill a sense of achievement and pride in all people with intellectual disabilities in Israel.”

The program has been a success- the soldiers with disabilities adapted well and the benefits for both the soldiers and the army were very evident. The IDF has now proposed to initiate a recruitment process in order to offer civil positions within the army and opportunity of permanent enlistment in the standing army to the released soldiers with disabilities.

As Israel moves forward, we will continue to impact and  strengthen Israeli society, a society which will become fully inclusive and everyone can contribute.

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Thank You!

JayRuderman244 and  41. Those two numbers amaze me.

Our foundation announced the 2013 Ruderman Prize in Disability eligibility guidelines 5 weeks ago and on Monday, the applications process ended. When I awoke Tuesday morning, I was astounded: 244 applications were submitted, a 41% increase over last year! From Cambodia, South Africa, Canada, Argentina, France, USA, Israel, Russia, UK, Brazil and more.

A thank you to our many partners who helped spread the word to as many Jewish communities as possible so we can recognize the fine work being performed by local organizations. I am encouraged that there are so many innovative programs around the world working towards the full inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish communal life.

I want to personally thank everyone who took the time to fill out the application and share with us how you are making your community more inclusive. Now the hard part for our staff begins: Choosing only 5 winners from among a pool of very worthy candidates.

This initiative is meant to recognize past work in inclusion. There is still much work to be done so that every person with a disability feels welcome in his/her community. But seeing so many people around the world dedicated to this issue gives me hope that we are on the right path to full inclusion.

– Jay

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Cooking Up Employment Opps

JayRudermanWe are proud to support Transitions to Work, in collaboration with Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). They work to train and help young adults with disabilities enter the workforce while simultaneously engaging the corporate and business community to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

Here’s a wrap up of a program that just ended. It is great to see how everyone benefited- participants and their mentors.
– Jay

Five Transitions to Work participants recently graduated from a three month training program at Whitsons School of Nutrition in the Newton, MA North High School. The participants received classroom instruction in job readiness issues and gained hands-on work experience and training. The work included customer service, food preparation, food portioning and back of the house support positions.


“Thank you so much for letting us come in and do this work. Whitsons helped us use different types of tools. When we get a job somewhere and they ask us if we have used those tools, now we can say yes,” said Josh, a participant who spoke at the graduation. “I seriously like Whitsons and its people more than anything and will never forget. They are very superb and helpful… I like how we are able to work together and always ask when we had any problems. I also liked learning how to use the grill, serve food, and food prep from all of the Whitsons Staff.”

Everyone agreed it was a win-win experience for all. The program was not only highly beneficial for the participants but also for the Whitsons employees. Micah Fleisig, the Transitions to Work Employment Specialist for JVS, applauded Whitsons commitment to individuals with disabilities and to the Transitions to Work participant: “Due to the staff, chef and administration, Whitsons has been a wonderful work site for our interns. I have been completely impressed with the balance of mentoring and compassion with their professionalism and productivity.”

April Liles, Food Service Director – Newton Public Schools Whitsons School Nutrition, is a big supporter of the program. April mentioned that Whitsons saw this experience as an opportunity to partner with the community and it turned out better than even anticipated. The participants arrived every day, on time, eager to work and learn, and became members of the team. “The experience was amazing for Whitsons, the participants, and all involved. We would do it again in a heartbeat”.

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