February 14, 2018
The Heldmans were no strangers to Easterseals. In 2005, their son became ill and subsequently suffered a brain injury which has left him unable to walk and susceptible to intense seizures. This life-changing event made Paul and Debbie acutely aware of and passionate about the cause of disability services. In addition, Paul had spent many years as general counsel for the Kroger Co., which has a long-standing relationship with Easterseals. In fact, Paul had many friends from Kroger who had already served on the Easterseals Board of Directors.
The Heldmans’ involvement began gradually. They were invited to a few dinners and appreciated the inspiring stories they heard. Then Paul attended a strategic planning meeting to get a better grasp of how the organization worked.
“Then I met Pam Green,” remembers Paul, speaking of the President and CEO of Easterseals Serving Greater Cincinnati. “She is amazing and inspired me to get involved.”
Paul has been on the board for a little more than two years, and currently serves as the Board Secretary. He serves on a number of different boards for charitable organizations throughout the city, and finds his experience at Easterseals “hard to characterize.” He tries to explain, “There are some really talented people on the board. Pam is very strategic with how to involve people and what the organization means…it’s really easy to be on this board.”
Pam Green returns the praise, going so far as to call him a superhero. “As a parent, he understands the employment challenges that living with a disability can present for the individuals we serve,” she says, “and he also wholeheartedly believes that every person with a disability deserves to experience the opportunity, fulfillment and purpose work instills.”
That belief clearly manifests in Paul’s support of the Easterseals Work and Grow program. This inclusive workforce model identifies community partners and offers part-time employment opportunities combined with socio-recreational experiences. Participants learn transferable work skills and earn minimum wage while enjoying a regular schedule, routine environment, and on-site support staff provided by Easterseals.
The program began in local YMCAs, but Paul saw the opportunity to bring it to his own community at the Mayerson Jewish Community Center (JCC). To demonstrate his confidence in the program’s importance and value to the JCC, the Heldmans made a major gift. 100% of that gift directly pays the wages of the individuals working in the Work and Grow program at the JCC.
The program currently employs 11 individuals who handle custodial services. They clean a wide variety of areas in the community center and in Rockdale Temple. Pam Green explains that “Most [participants] have attended our work centers for years, and moving to the JCC is a huge step forward. Several have already moved on to community employment!”
Direct Support Specialist Lois Drizin reiterates the value of the Work and Grow program at the JCC. “The most meaningful thing is the contact with the [JCC] members,” she says. “The members and staff help build the confidence of our individuals. Everyone tells our guys and gals what a great job they are doing and how nice the building looks since we have come to work there.”
Lois is also quick to share the success of Clayton, a former Work and Grow participant. After gradually increasing responsibilities and skills, Clayton found employment at an Applebee’s near his home. He started part-time, but is now a full-time employee and loving every second. Lois adamantly believes that if not for the Work and Grow program and the vital support of the Heldmans, “that never would have happened.”
Paul deflects the praise, suggesting that support like theirs is common sense. “I love the work that Easterseals does,” he asserts. “It’s inspiring when you see these people, who otherwise would not have a place to work, feel the pride in working, seeing their delight in what they’re doing.”
It is this conviction that all people deserve pride and self-sufficiency that drives the Heldmans’ giving. Paul is also involved with CURE Epilepsy, a leading organization in epilepsy research, and The Ohio Innocence Project, dedicated to identifying inmates who are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. The link between CURE Epilepsy and Easterseals is clear as they both support individuals with disabilities. But when Paul first tries to describe The Innocence Project as an “unrelated” passion project, he realizes that there really is a common thread: independence.
Everyone deserves autonomy, the dignity of making their own choices and living their own lives as best they can. Thanks to the Heldmans, 11 individuals are experiencing that dignity through the Work and Grow program. Paul and Debbie steadfast commitment to Easterseals and its workforce development programs, and their passionate advocacy for its continuance, are a beautiful reminder of the impact two people can have. They are Easterseals Heroes.