ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s the biggest news the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando has gotten in a long time: Amazon has agreed to hire young adults with disabilities who graduate from the organization’s job and social skills training program.
For more than a decade, the Jewish Federation has been teaching adults with special needs, at no cost to them, how to get jobs and then arranging those jobs.
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Owen Dawson, 18, is the first RAISE — Recognizing Abilities and Inclusion of Special Employees — graduate to be hired by Amazon. He will work in Amazon’s Orlando warehouse.
“Starting something new is only easy for me when I either have someone new who’s done it before or someone next to me telling me how to do it, or I know enough about it myself,” Dawson said. “I’m slightly apprehensive because it’s still somewhere I haven’t been and something I haven’t done. Even with all the preparation it’s something that’s new to me.”
Amazon will be Dawson’s first job.
“I was feeling a little bit lost about it,” Dawson said. “Didn’t know where to start, I was scared to start.”
Loren London founded RAISE in 2012 after seeing the challenges her brother with special needs was facing trying to find and hold a job.
“One day he literally came home and said, ‘Loren, I love going to the JCC [Jewish Community Center], it’s my favorite place, everyone knows my name, can I work there?’” London said. “And I was so touched and choked up, and I said, ‘You know what I’m going to see if I can figure this out, Barry.’”
London is the current RAISE director.
“Most of our young adults who participate in RAISE really, really need help with building social skills for the workplace and that’s really where we shine, our curriculum is fantastic,” London said. “All of them struggle with that.”
Through the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando, Loren leads the specialized training with a team of seven educators, all volunteers, many of them with extensive experience in education, special education, psychology and mental health counseling.
“At the end of the day, what we hope is our participants measurably move forward in their lives,” London said. “So whether it’s finding employment competitively in our community, or if they decide to go to college, or move into independent living, this is success for us.”
Three days a week for an entire school year, the RAISE students learn how to do a job, how to keep a job, and then actually do a job at businesses and organizations all over Central Florida. Through donations, the Federation pays the students.
“Folding towels, sanitizing equipment, working in the snack bar,” London said. “They’re working at the front desk, they’re working as library assistants, they’re also the student center at UCF helping to straighten up, they’re working downtown in the Senior Center helping residents learn to use their cell phones.”
London explained the partnership with Amazon.
“Amazon has their own hiring department for what they call people with disabilities - PWDs - as they refer to it, and so they’re willing to make accommodations and really help us in a fantastic way,” London said.
Dawson credits RAISE with not just getting him the job but preparing him for it.
“I’m grateful to RAISE for teaching me that getting a job doesn’t have to be this monumental task that feels like you’re trying to climb a mountain,” Dawson said.
Michael Sarkis, 23, is another recent graduate. He works at Homegoods.
“I help around the store by building lamps, putting clearance sales on tags,” Sarkis said. “It’s fun. I wish I could have more hours. I work for 4 hours but I want to work for 6 hours. I really like the place.”
What London and RAISE are most proud of is the confidence graduates are gaining - Sarkis, Dawson and 70 other young adults since 2012.
“You can’t teach confidence,” London said. “You have to hope someone is going to gain it and that’s what we’re proudest of. With confidence they’re able to move out and into a new environment.”
Dawson and Sarkis said they have, with RAISE’s training.
“Starting new things is always hard, especially when you just don’t know where to start,” Dawson said.
“But sometimes it takes a guiding hand to help someone,” Sarkis said. “And RAISE has been that hand.”
Anyone can apply for RAISE. The program takes nine people a year of all different faiths, backgrounds and races out of on average 50 applications.
The only requirements are that the applicant has special needs, family support and wants to work.
To learn more about the program, click here.
RAISE is in talks with several other organizations around the country to replicate somewhere else what they’re doing at the Jewish Federation.
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