Fighting Stigma: Breaking Down the Walls

See how members of the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse are fighting mental health stigma by sharing their experiences in the evening of storytelling “Breaking Down the Walls: building Empowerment”. Clubhouse member Heidi Morris shares her insight in this video.

Breaking Down the Walls: Building Empowerment

On February 23rd from 5:30pm – 7:30pm, the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse will be holding “Breaking Down the Walls: building empowerment” for a night of spoken storytelling by Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse members aimed to break down the walls around mental illness. Community leader, Robert Levin will be presented the Shore Whitehill Award at the event. This annual award is given to a disability inclusion champion in the Jewish community.

The event will also raise crucial funds for the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse, a licensed psychiatric and social rehabilitation program of The Branch (formerly JRS) located in Squirrel Hill. The Clubhouse provides a warm, welcoming community where adults whose lives have been disrupted by mental illness come together to discover and develop their strengths and abilities, build self-confidence, and gain valuable social and vocational skills that prepare them for more productive, rewarding, meaningful lives. 

“Everybody at the Clubhouse works together. Everybody has a say in what we do. The Clubhouse means a lot to me. I consider it my second family,” said Mike, a Clubhouse member and a presenter at the “Breaking Down the Walls” event. 

The event is being held during the month of February aligns with Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. As a local leader in services for people with disabilities, The Branch, along with other organizations, is holding events to educate the community about how to foster a sense of belonging for people with disabilities. 

To purchase tickets to “Breaking Down the Walls: a storytelling event” click here or call 412.325.0039.

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The Intersection of Race, Disability and Religion: A First-Person Experience

Join The Branch and webinar speaker Asha Chai-Chang as she talks about the growing community of Jews who identify as Jews of Color. Born in Long Island as the Jamaican/Cuban/Chinese/Jewish daughter to immigrant parents, Asha is an Actuary by Trade turned Award-Winning Director/Writer with invisible disabilities.

Asha will create an open dialogue about being a person of color with multiple disabilities and speak about the intersectionality of being a Jew of Color with disabilities. She will also explore ways Jewish communities can increase visibility and create safe spaces for Jews of Color. Attendees will learn informative statistics and factual findings, have an opportunity to connect within the webinar, and walk away with new tools and best practices. 

Asha Chai-Chang is the Co-Founder for Slamdance Unstoppable, a program for disabled talent and filmmakers that educates through films, panels, and partnerships on ways we can address DEIA issues concerning participants, audience members, and submitters. Additionally, Asha is a Production Accessibility Coordinator, which often highlights the importance of disability accommodation requests in the entertainment industry. Her work in this industry informs practices that can be applied to organizations, businesses and communities.

Webinar date TBD. To register or for more information, contact

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The importance of altruism in our community

Many people served by JRS give back to their community by volunteering. JRS staff encourages those it serves to volunteer to be involved in the community, socialize, build confidence, and learn new skills applicable to everyday life. 

JRS places importance on volunteerism among those it serves because it offers a deeper understanding of the lives of people with disabilities and the value they bring, just as every individual brings, to the life of their community. This understanding encourages greater acceptance of diversity, greater compassion for people of all abilities, and greater cooperation in solving local as well as global challenges that affect us all.

Many organizations in the Jewish community have inclusive volunteering programs that make it possible for everyone to have an opportunity to give back: the Jewish Community Center (JCC), Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, JFCS, the Friendship Circle and Repair the World. Several JRS participants volunteer at various organizations throughout the community. 

Caryn (pictured above) has participated in the Supportive Living Program at JRS for 20 years. This program provides her with comprehensive individualized support based on her specific needs.

Every week for seven years, Caryn and her JRS direct support professional venture to the JCC to volunteer at the JCafe, a program of AgeWell Pittsburgh. The program was designed to ensure that everyone age 60+ gets a nutritious meal at no cost and that they don’t have to eat it alone. Instead, they socialize with their peers as part of a community. “Everyone who works at the JCC makes sure I have what I need in order to do my job well,” Caryn explained.

On a typical volunteer day, Caryn helps participants get their lunch, carries their trays to their table, and cleans up. She is attentive to all aspects of her job, whether it be restocking items the staff or diners need or thoroughly cleaning before lunch begins. 

“Caryn greets everyone with a smile and learns their names. She is always the first volunteer to arrive and immediately gets to work,” explained Caryn’s supervisor, Amy Gold.

Caryn also meets many people while she volunteers. “It is nice. When I walk around the area or take the bus, I will see people I know. We usually smile and say hello. It is a nice feeling,” Caryn said. “Volunteering makes me feel good. If I am having a bad day, I leave the JCC feeling good; feeling happy.”

Gary is also a long-time participant in JRS’ supportive living program. His volunteer work with AgeWell is slightly different than Caryn’s. Each week, Gary volunteers for the CheckMates program which is a volunteer peer-led telephone reassurance program. 

Volunteers who are 60+ make weekly phone calls to other older adults with the goal of offering a connection between volunteers and people in the community who may be homebound, isolated or lonely. Confidential phone calls are made once a week by volunteers at the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill and in the South Hills. 

Gary has volunteered his time to the CheckMates program for 12 years. “I think volunteering with CheckMates helps me more than it helps the people I call. I feel better helping people out there who have issues and problems. I can help talk through whatever they want to. When you help others, you help yourself,” said Gary,

His supervisor is also Amy Gold from the JCC. She speaks highly of his commitment and natural ability to connect to the people he contacts. “He does a great job and is reliable. The people he checks in with really enjoy talking to him. They rely on and look forward to his calls every week.”

Amy explains that there are many benefits to the AgeWell volunteer program for both volunteers and participants. 

“I love what AgeWell does as a whole and that it is a collaboration between the JCC, JFCS and the Jewish Association on Aging as well as volunteers. We can help older adults remain independent, connecting them with the resources they need,” explains Amy. 

And, as Gary says, “When you help others, you help yourself.”

If you are interested in learning more about the volunteer program at the JCC, please contact Amy Gold at or 412.697.3528.


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Review: He’s My Brother

This documentary is a candid, moving exploration of one family’s efforts to ensure a rich, dignified life for Peter, born with multiple disabilities.  Peter, 30 years old, is deaf, blind and has autism. His sister Christine describes how he experiences his world exclusively through touch, smell, and taste.  Numerous family films chronicle her tender relationship with him throughout their childhood.  The documentary demonstrates the very loving ways the family provides a rich, connected and stimulating environment for Peter in the face of significant challenges, and their struggles to find a setting which will assure him a dignified life once the parents are gone. Christine and her mother openly discuss her uncertainties about one day becoming his primary caregiver. While documenting the failings of government systems to provide adequate support to individuals like Peter, the film is also a testament to the fierce devotion of family caregivers. 

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Call for Nominations: Do you know a champion of disability inclusion?

The Shore-Whitehill Award, named for Barbara Shore and Robert Whitehill, celebrates those who are dedicated to disability inclusion in the Jewish community.

Do you know someone who is a champion of inclusion of people of all abilities in the Jewish community? Do you want to celebrate their contributions? We are looking to celebrate their accomplishments and passion for inclusion.

Who can be nominated?

• A volunteer working in the Jewish community.

• A paid professional working in the Jewish community who has gone above and beyond to support inclusion outside of their working hours.

• An individual who promotes inclusion within the Jewish community but is not associated with a specific organization (i.e., landlords, caregivers, first responders, business owners).

• A person who is Jewish or non-Jewish.

Who can nominate a champion?

Anyone! Nominations can come from an individual, on behalf a congregation, organization, business, or group.

What do I need to do to nominate someone?

It’s easy, just complete this brief online form.  Nominations must be received by September 30th.

What happens next?

The recipient of the 2023 Shore Whitehill Award will be honored at an inclusion event to be held during Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, February 2023. This event will be organized by Jewish Residential Services with input from the nominator(s).

Click here to nominate a champion of disability inclusion!


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Inclusive Volunteering Toolkit

Society has become increasingly interested in volunteerism. Studies have shown that there are a lack of volunteer opportunities for people with disabilities . Our community must strive to have inclusive volunteer programs, as there are many benefits to all.

Benefits to all volunteers included pride, skill development, empowerment, and increases communication. Having an inclusive volunteer program helps people without disabilities have a positive attitude change and increased social interaction toward people with disabilities leading to a greater understanding of what it is like to live with a disability. Simply said, volunteering brings people from all walks of life together, as long as there are not barriers for certain populations to participate.

Do you want to learn more about how to make your volunteer program more inclusive?

Click here to view ARC’s Inclusive Volunteering Tool Kit


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A Conversation About Mental Illness and Stigma

People with mental health diagnosis experience stigma and discrimination that can make their symptoms  worse and make it harder to recover or even seek treatment. Risa and Jan discus their mental health journeys and the stigma they have experienced throughout their lives. Click here to watch their conversation. 

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Mental Health ACTION Day

In partnership with more than 1600 brands, nonprofits, government agencies and cultural leaders, Jewish Residential Services is proud to be a partner in Mental Health Action Day this Thursday, May 19th. On this day, we will encourage and empower people to take the next step for #MentalHealthAction. Go to to learn more and join our effort to shift from awareness to action on mental health.

Head to to get started with ways that you can take action for yourself or a friend on Mental Health Action Day. There is no-one-size-fits-all action, but rather, this is an open source effort for all who want to use their megaphones to drive our culture of mental health from awareness to action.

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My Triple Whammy During Covid

By: Nancy Passantino, pictured left 

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that Covid did not affect their mental health. They may not have the language to describe what they are going through as those of us with mental illness have but, like us, they have been on a scary uncharted course unlike anything they may have ever experienced before.

As a member of the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse for the past seven years, I believe I had been able to get all the help and guidance needed to maintain a normal lifestyle with only a few bumps in the road. Getting to the Clubhouse a few times a week and participating in the work ordered day gave me a place to socialize and ground myself. That was before this unimaginable world pothole appeared and we all fell in.

I have been suffering with a triple whammy these past few years. Diagnosed with bipolar depression in my early 20’s, now a senior adult and one having underlying medical conditions, I seemed to check all the boxes. Is it any wonder that for quite a while I was not really living, only surviving? A famous quote by a German philosopher says that if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger; but a famous comedian also once commented that unless you’re eating ice cream, you’re suffering.

As for becoming stronger I believe the truth in that, and I’ve even read that some people can experience post traumatic growth (PTG) during these times which can result in having a renewed appreciation for life and adopting a new world view with new possibilities for us. Today I am a work in progress, using my mindfulness practices and keeping all my mental health tools in hand to keep me afloat and give me strength. I have slowly, if baby steps count, been able to reintroduce myself back into society and back to the Clubhouse that is awaiting me. Such a wonderful feeling.

Of course, just in case, I always keep a supply of ice cream in my freezer.

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