NoVa special-needs classes teach life skills

Melissa Gurman, left, with Alice Hanson, chef, at the George Mason University Nutrition Kitchen in Fairfax. JCCNV
Melissa Gurman, left, with Alice Hanson, chef, at the George Mason University Nutrition Kitchen in Fairfax.

Cracking eggs. Peeling carrots. Baking bread. Slicing apples. You name it. If someone wants to learn how to whip up a healthy meal, the answer is in the George Mason University Nutrition Kitchen in Fairfax.

That’s where Cooking with Class meets. The program is one effort of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia’s special needs department, which aims to help people with disabilities develop physical and social skills.

“They are learning skills, anything from prep and cleanup. They’re learning recipes and how to follow recipes,” said Jessica Tischler, the center’s special needs director. “They become comfortable navigating through the kitchen and learning how to properly use utensils.”

The next four-week session, run by two professional chefs, will start Sunday.

Tischler said that while the JCC welcomes people with many kinds of special needs, the majority of participants are on the autism spectrum or have ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder). The agency’s special needs committee meets every six weeks to develop programming.

Another special-needs program is Gal Pals which, according to the JCCNV website, is a “fun, recreational group in which girls can explore their emotions, discuss important issues going on in their lives, learn how to make appropriate friendships, learn to improve self-esteem, manage anxiety, and work on a variety of social skills in a safe and caring environment.”

There are sessions for kids (ages 6-8), tweens (ages 9-12) and teens (ages 13-15).

“We’re actually taking [Gal Pals participants] into the community, and for their social skills class they are going to restaurants in the area to learn skills and how to socialize, how to order at a restaurant and how to act in public,” Tischler said.

Adapted sports is a new program. The center joined with Children’s Adaptive Team Sports, a league for children with disabilities, for indoor basketball. Also offered is indoor TOPSoccer through a partnership with the Outreach Program for Soccer.

Educational workshops, presented jointly by the JCCNV and the Washington Group Special Care Planning Team, a financial firm that caters to families with special needs, take place throughout the year.

This month, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, there is a workshop on employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities to be held Thursday (today) at the Fairfax building.

Marc Jacob, the center’s associate executive director, said the special needs department has grown since its inception eight years ago, and now employs two full-time and two part-time staff.

“The whole department has really grown and I think one of the reasons, other than the staff that has been behind it and the community as a whole, is because of the special needs committee as well,” he said. “We have a great group of people who have been working with us for the last few years.”

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