Special needs community heads to formal dance at JCC

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Gowns and tuxedos, corsages and boutonnieres, vivacious dancing and smiling faces — the gym at the MetroWest JCC location in West Orange looked just like prom night May 6. But this prom was not for area high school students or even just teenagers. The formal dance was presented to the community by the JCC’s Special Needs Services Department, a chance for the department’s clients to get dressed up, have a night out and enjoy themselves.

The free event attracted approximately 150 people — some with special needs, some family members and some were eager volunteers who helped make the night possible. This formal dance would not have happened without a generous donation from the Glaser Family Fund, and everyone involved was pleased with the result.

“It’s very exciting to be able to provide an evening out for not only our JCC participants, but also members of the greater MetroWest community,” Special Needs Services Director Marisa Cohen told the West Orange Chronicle at the event. The Special Needs Services Department works with anyone in the community with special needs, regardless of religion.

Cohen was overwhelmed by the response they received from the community for this event. Originally they had planned to hold the dance in a conference room that could hold approximately 70 people; however, it soon became apparent they would need a bigger room.

“We’ve wanted to do this for a long time, but we didn’t have the funding, so when the Glasers offered us this money, we jumped on it,” Cohen said, adding that in her three years with the Special Needs Services Department at JCC MetroWest, they have never before held this type of event.

The donation from the Glaser Family Fund had actually been earmarked for something else entirely.

“We gave money to the JCC 20 years when our daughter was active in theater,” Ellen Glaser told the Chronicle at the event, adding that the JCC charged $16 per theater student, which she thought was too much; she and her husband, Len, donated money to the JCC to lower the price to just $10 per student. But not all of this money ended up being used for the theater program; some of it just sat, waiting to be used.

“About two years ago, I said ‘What have you done with the money?’” Ellen Glaser said, saying she learned that it was sitting and collecting dust. “So I said, ‘Use it for people with special needs.’”

Working with individuals with special needs is an area close to Ellen and Len Glaser’s hearts, as their grandson lives with Asperger’s syndrome. The couple was proud to say, though, that their grandson now works at Disney and is engaged to be married. The Glasers said they hope for everyone with special needs to achieve success and happiness, just like their grandson.

“I just love them all,” Ellen Glaser said of persons with special needs. “They all try and they all need a reason to live.”

The Glaser family is involved in several organizations to assist those with special needs. Ellen Glaser and daughter June Schechner are active with the Friendship Circle, a nonprofit group that links Jewish high school student volunteers with children with special needs. And, the same week as the dance, Ellen and Len Glaser hosted a representative from the Jewish National Fund’s Special in Uniform program, which trains Israeli youth with special needs in tasks they can do for the Israel Defense Forces; nearly all Israeli teens at age 18 are drafted into the army, but those with special needs are not and can feel left out and depressed.

“I don’t see the disability of anybody,” Schechner told the Chronicle at the event. “I see them as people.”

This is why Schechner and her parents were so pleased to see the formal dance happen, with so many community members participating. And they weren’t the only ones who were overjoyed by the event’s success.

“It’s such a special event,” Robin Cohen, a Special Needs Services Department employee who was working the door of the event, told the Chronicle. “I’m just excited to give those with special needs an opportunity to socialize, to have a night out and dance.”

Robin Cohen said she was very pleased to see that the dance had a prom-like feel to it, and Marisa Cohen agreed.

“This is a very meaningful evening,” Marisa Cohen said. “Many of them did not attend any type of prom, so this is a first for them. I feel very fortunate to have been able to do this.”

Photos by Yael Katzwer