JVS reaches out to teenagers with learning, emotional limits

Jewish Vocational Service has long been associated with retraining Jewish emigres, but the agency's presence is also growing among teens of all faith who have disabilities.

Two years ago, the S.F.-based JVS became the lead agency in a program to prepare teens with learning or emotional disabilities for entry-level jobs. This fall, the Work Resource Program's budget nearly doubled when it received a three-year federal grant worth about $700,000.

The injection of cash has allowed the effort to expand to all high school grades in San Francisco and to help teens with severe emotional disturbances.

"A lot of these children will never go to college. We need to work on vocational-type goals," program supervisor Gam Caldwell said.

Though it may seem logical to help teens in special-education classes prepare for their lives after high school, Caldwell said this program is the first of its kind in the Bay Area. Without this type of help, he asserted, many of these teens may end up on welfare or even get involved in criminal activity such as drug dealing.

"We have a real need on our hands," Caldwell said.

The effort includes sending JVS staff members into special-education classes twice a week to teach teens job-hunting skills, such as learning how to write a resume, make business-like telephone calls and conduct themselves during interviews. For some of the teens, the help becomes as basic as learning not to slouch, use slang, wear extremely baggy clothes or constantly stare at the floor.

A common denominator among the teens is a history of failure in school.

"They've been told they're stupid a million times," said Julia Marks, one of the program's four vocational specialists. "They're expected to fail."

About 250 teens are currently enrolled in the program, which is expected to serve about 450 over the course of the 1995-96 school year. About two dozen of the teens currently hold part-time jobs through the program. The rest just aren't ready yet, Marks said.

Of the total enrollment, about 80 percent of the teens have learning disabilities. These include dyslexia, which is an impaired reading condition, and its equivalent in mathematics called dyscalcula.

The other 20 percent of students suffer from emotional problems that produce disruptive and defiant behavior, Caldwell said.

Staff members also track down potential employers. Once the teens get hired, the staff members continue to coach them on work skills and act as liaisons with the employers. To promote participation by local businesses, the government money subsidizes the salaries in many cases.

"We're looking for employers who want youths," said Marks.

Few, if any, of the teens are Jewish. But JVS executive director Abby Snay said the board of directors believes strongly in helping non-Jews, citing the Jewish tenet of tikkun olam, or mending the world.

"The Jewish community is better off in a stronger general community," Snay said. "This is also a great program for Jewish community relations…so the Jewish community is not perceived as taking care only of its own."

The vocational service got interested in this field in the early 1990s after it began working with the state Department of Rehabilitation to find jobs for high school graduates of special-education programs.

"We found they could get hired. But they were losing the jobs," Snay said.

A teen might get reprimanded for showing up late for work one day and then never return. So, Snay said, JVS wanted to begin working with teens as early as ninth grade to prepare them for the working world.

Nancy Ferrufino, a Balboa High School senior with a learning disability, was one of about 50 teens to find work over the summer through the program. After enrolling in the program last school year, she got a job at the Bryant Children's Center in the city's Mission District as a day-care aide who helped feed, wake and entertain kids.

"I liked everything about my job," the 17-year-old San Franciscan said.

Ferrufino enjoyed the working with children so much that she is considering day care as a profession after she graduates.

Other teens are preparing for similar entry-level jobs, such as security guards, retail workers, office clerks, kitchen aides and janitors.

The vocational specialists currently work in seven high schools, as well as three day-treatment centers that care for teens who may be severely depressed, schizophrenic or suicidal.

JVS is working with several agencies and groups on the project, including the San Francisco Unified School District, the state Department of Rehabilitation, the city Division of Community Mental Health, the Private Industry Council, and two community vocational agencies.

Until the federal grant came through this fall, the program's $370,000 budget came from San Francisco via Proposition J, which mandated that the city set aside money each year for family and children's services.

The program is already receiving attention. In the fall, it was recognized as one of five "outstanding" school-to-work programs in the nation by the University of Minnesota. And in a recently completed annual evaluation by the city, the Work Resource Program received a 4.33 on a scale of 1 to 5.

Despite the early accolades, Snay said, JVS will have to wait to see how much it helps in the long run.

"We won't see the full impact of it for a couple of years," she said.