Like most young adults, Ari Levinson was eager to leave his parents’ nest. Today, he is proud of his South Orange, N.J., apartment and his job at the local Veterans Affairs hospital. While Ari appreciates when his parents invite him for dinner, his active social life and participation in sports teams—soccer, basketball, and softball—often make that difficult. “I have a life,” he quips.
That most common trajectory toward adulthood was impossible for his parents Michael and Jackie to imagine when Ari, now 43, was a child. He was just 2 when doctors confirmed that Ari had special needs that would almost certainly prevent him from living independently. They expected he’d eventually need to be institutionalized while his parents faced uneasy questions: Where is my child going to live when he’s older? What will happen to him when we’re gone?
A House Nearby
The Levinsons worked tirelessly to secure a plan for their son. Using their community’s network of other parents with developmentally disabled kids, the Levinsons sought to find schooling that could foster Ari’s social skills and independence. When they found out about JESPY House, a local nonprofit that helps adults with similar disabilities live independently, the couple learned that they’d need to spend the next decade preparing their son for the program.
Meeting REALTOR® Annette Evans at JESPY House gave them an immediate support system that seemed to alleviate all of their worries about Ari’s future. Evans’ involvement in JESPY grew from the caregiving role she had with her son, who became a JESPY client 30 years ago.
In her 30 years as a volunteer board member for JESPY, Evans, now a sales associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New Jersey Properties in Livingston, N.J, has filled many roles. “She doesn’t just sit at a board meeting,” says Michael, who serves on JESPY’s parent committee with Evans. “She is at every fundraising event, every seminar, every talk and discussion. She calls, emails, and writes to get more participation from parents so that JESPY raises money that it really, really needs.” Separate from JESPY House, she also staffs a parent helpline called Mom2Mom that provides peer support for families with children with special needs struggling to find resources and hope.
The Gems of JESPY
Evans’ voice grows warmer when she starts talking about the people who live in JESPY’s seven residential properties. She seeks to shine a light on all the ways the residents contribute to society. Before working in real estate, Evans was an administration manager and business control consultant at IBM and says she would have loved to have had developmentally disabled adults working on her team. They are efficient and excel at their jobs, she says. They can also advocate for themselves, she says, noting that some JESPY clients get involved in politics to make sure their voices are heard.
“Developmentally disabled people kind of get overlooked. And they have so much to offer. [JESPY] helps them to be well-rounded, happy, productive members of society, which is all they want to be.” —Annette Evans
“In New Jersey, they’ve been taking funding away from developmentally disabled people. Our clients are going to political meetings and fighting for their rights,” Evans says. “They get up to speak and say, ‘I’m living this life, and it’s happy and productive, and you’re trying to take it away from me and that’s not right.’ It can teach us all something.”
Most of the people JESPY serves are leading full lives as employed, taxpaying citizens. Clients like Ari Levinson, who moved into his first JESPY residence at 21, receive transportation services at JESPY to get to work, run errands, and attend social outings. Case managers help JESPY clients maintain a budget and ensure they pay their bills. JESPY residents also help each other through the everyday struggles that come with having intellectual and physical disabilities.
“If more people were as kind as those who have developmental disabilities, I think it’d be a better world,” Evans says. “All they want to do is help, not hurt.”
Funds for the Future
Evans, co-chair of this year’s major fundraising campaign gala, helped the group raise more than $200,000, roughly double the total raised in 2017. These funds go toward housing, recreational programming, events for clients and parents, job sourcing, counselors, and more.
In addition, Evans organizes workshops and brings in out-of-state academics who teach parents and caregivers how to prepare themselves for their loved ones to age in place at JESPY residences, which has become a top priority of the organization.
As clients’ needs evolve, Evans’ efforts have helped maintain JESPY House as a strong, adaptable program that currently serves 250 clients ranging from ages 18 to 70. As Tara Roberts, JESPY’s head of community relations, noted, some people are thinkers while others are doers—and Evans is a doer. “I think she does it for the people—she believes in the mission of the agency,” Roberts says, adding that advocates like Evans make sure no one’s needs go unmet.
Her demanding work and volunteer schedule means Evans is rarely home, but she has no complaints. “I do believe there’s much happiness in giving,” Evans says. “Some people get so busy with their lives, they don’t make time to volunteer, to help someone. I believe when I help other people, I get more back than I give. I truly, truly feel that.”