Where to find her: At JFS’s Capitol Hill offices
When Rachael Byer Kwong first joined Jewish Family Service working with the disabled community, she was the youngest full-time employee with the organization. Nearly 15 years later, she can look around and see a program and community that has grown around her, shaped by her commitment and dedication to the disabled community.
Fresh out of the University of Washington, through a connection at Kline Galland, Kwong found herself working in geriatric care with JFS. After a long period feeling disconnected from the Jewish community, Kwong felt instantly reconnected at JFS and comfortable with the values and culture that working with a Jewish organization offered her.
After going back to school to obtain her master’s in social work, Kwong returned to JFS as the supported living program manager at the Seattle Association for Jews with Disabilities.
“When I started we had about 22 clients and served about 30 people a year; now we have 56 active clients, 75-100 clients served a year,” says Kwong about the evolution of the supported living program. “We’ve doubled the amount of clients and staff as well to accommodate that.”
As with any medical profession, Kwong has seen how research and advances have also changed the philosophy of SAJD.
“We used to be more focused on keeping someone safe where they’re at, maintaining their situation,” says Kwong. “Now, [we’re] more focused on independence and autonomy.”
Kwong points out that SAJD’s focus has moved away from the idea of basic sustainability to improving the situation of those with disabilities.
“We try to stay up to date with best practices and new research to keep up and make sure that we don’t stay stagnant as a program. We’ll never be done — there’s always something new coming out and changing the way we work,” Kwong says with a laugh. “My personal goal is to work myself out of a job.”
Kwong is especially pleased with the Shaarei Tikvah all-inclusive services that SAJD and Seattle Jewish community leaders organize for people of all levels of faith and disability to participate in, regardless of their situation. During the Rosh Hashanah service, attendees are welcomed to ascend the bima and view the Torah. For many participants, this is their first time ever seeing the Torah up close.
One of the biggest challenges for Kwong, even after 25 years of the SAJD’s presence in the community, is the lack of knowledge about the resources it provides.
“I hear about a lot of people who just have no idea that the program exists,” she says. “I work closely with a lot of the clergy and a lot of people go to their rabbis and let them know about something they are struggling with, so it’s frustrating when they don’t know about our programs.”
Incredibly, Seattle’s JFS is the only one in the country that provides services to adults with disabilities, including mental health disabilities. Kwong has shared the SAJD program manuals and documentation with other Jewish service organizations around the country that have shown an interest in starting similar programs.
“I’m really open and encouraging of sharing the information about our program to develop those programs,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of people who have moved here from other parts of the country just for the program that we offer.”
Kwong finds the most rewarding part of her job is working directly with clients. “Knowing this person is struggling and knowing that I have the tools to help them make things easier is truly rewarding for me,” she says.
Her goal for the program in the coming years is to continue seeing more growth.
“In the next fiscal year, we’ll have enough funding to hire another case manager, so we can take on more clients,” says Kwong. “Funding in the past has been a challenge. Each case manager has a varied amount of clients that they can take on, but just one case manager means a substantial growth.”
Meanwhile, Kwong balances being the director of a constantly growing program, which just a few months ago went from being a separate agency to officially becoming part of Jewish Family Service, and being a mom.
“I’ve probably gotten as many services out of JFS as I’ve given,” laughs Kwong. “JFS is very much a family. JFS has supported me through it all.”