03 February 2022
For nearly 50 years, Federation Disability Inclusion Committee member, Sara Portman Milner, has made a difference in our community. A social worker by training, Sara is a nationally and internationally recognized champion for the inclusion of children and adults with disabilities in all aspects of community life. We spoke with Sara to learn more about her work, her instrumental role as co-founder of Federation partner Sunflower Bakery, and the larger role the community can play in advocating for people with disabilities.
What does an inclusive Jewish community mean to you?
Being HERE, not somewhere else. Everyone should be welcomed and accommodated HERE. In other words, individuals with disabilities should be given the same opportunities to participate in the Jewish community as anywhere else. In order to do that, professionals and lay leaders throughout the Jewish community need to proactively engage with individuals to learn how they can accommodate their needs to participate, because it is the right thing to do, rather than to exclude and create separate opportunities.
Tell us about the work you’re doing in this space with Federation and an accomplishment that stands out from the past year.
As a member of Federation’s Disability Inclusion Committee, I have consistently kept the needs for young adults transitioning out of high school in the discussion. The needs shift from inclusion in school, to inclusion in the greater community through training and employment opportunities, as well as inclusion in Jewish social settings.
During 2021, our main goal for Federation’s committee was to continue to keep the inclusion conversation on the front burner. This was especially important considering how impacted the disability community was, as compared to the general population, by the physical and social isolation of the pandemic. Additionally, I am involved in the Employment Sub-Committee, which aids in developing awareness by Jewish employers that hiring Jewish individuals with disabilities is often a good business decision, as well as a good communal decision. The goal is a commitment to considering/hiring Jewish individuals who want to work but are not given the opportunities available to others. Our children with disabilities grow up and the importance of meaningful employment for them is at least as significant as it is for the general population, if not more.
Tell us about Sunflower Bakery? How did it come to be and what is its mission?
For families with an adult member with a disability, the options for community-based, integrated employment are few to non-existent, compared to the general population. Sunflower was born as a response to that need. Our mission is to provide on-the-job training for employment for a multitude of career paths, including pastry arts, baking, hospitality, and other food industry sectors. We work with adults and students ages 18+ with learning differences, as well as job exposure and workplace experience in a professional bakery to teens who have a variety of learning differences. Our mission and our whole program are based on Jewish values, especially as they relate to Maimonides’ (medieval Jewish philosopher) highest form of charity, partnering with students in their training and finding employment to become as self-sufficient as possible. So many young adults have become disenfranchised from their Jewish communities, because they were never meaningfully included.
Our Pastry Arts Training Program offers skilled, on-the-job training in our state-of-the-art training and production kitchens under the direction of professional pastry chef instructors. Sunflower’s Hospitality Employment Training Program offers a hybrid approach to learning. Students split time between traditional classroom learning and on-the-job training in our bakery and Sunflower Bakeshop under the instruction and supervision of our hospitality professionals. Our Teen Exposure Programs offer teens with a variety of unique learning needs wonderful real-time opportunities to experience baking in a professional kitchen, learn basic baking skills, safe food handling, kitchen safety, and have a taste of job expectations.
We also find through training at Sunflower Bakery, that many of our Jewish students reconnect or connect for the first time with Judaism. By training in an inclusive kosher bakery, and producing traditional and festive products, all of our students are learning about kashrut, the Jewish calendar of holidays, Shabbat, life cycle events—simchat bat (the Jewish naming ceremony for newborn girls), bar/bat mitzvah (the coming-of-age ritual), sheva brachot (the seven wedding blessings), shiva (the week-long mourning period following a death), and more.
How can more community members play leadership roles in this space?
Every community member can play a leadership role by introducing the topic and advocating for the hiring of Jewish applicants with disabilities in their workplaces. There are individuals and agencies available to help them facilitate the process. They can talk to their bosses, colleagues, friends, neighbors, relatives, and others who may be in a position to hire, to encourage them to hire even just one Jewish person with a disability even part- time. They can help those in a position to hire to understand that it is first, a great business decision; second, an impactful contribution to the entire Jewish and wider communities; and third, will be enormously valuable and life-changing for the individual with a disability and their family while expanding opportunities for meaningful inclusion.
Our own communities in the Metro DC area have programs or committees addressing meaningful inclusion of individuals with disabilities at various ages and stages very successfully in some areas, and maybe not-so-great in others. One area that has been given short shrift by the Jewish community is the stage after high school. After successful inclusion in preschools, summer camps, congregations, even in day schools, then what? It is not unusual to hear families bemoaning “the cliff,” that once their young adults have completed high school, they fall into the abyss, because finding employment is the next stage among many of life’s challenges. For families with an adult member with a disability, the options for community-based, integrated employment are few to non-existent, compared to the general population. This is where Sunflower Bakery has played an important role and more organizations and businesses can make an impact.