Friedberg JCC rolls out red carpet in Oceanside

Oceanside talent show celebrates adults with disabilities


The Friedberg JCC in Oceanside once again shined a spotlight on its annual Red Carpet Event to celebrate and advocate for adults with disabilities.

The April 4 event showcased the talents and achievements of individuals with disabilities while raising funds for the Special Advocacy Coalition, which is dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion. The money raised will help provide scholarships for members to attend a regional self-advocacy conference presented by the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State.

The Self-Advocacy Association of New York State hosts regional self-advocacy conferences throughout the state. These conferences provide opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to meet and discuss ideas and concerns with others who have had similar experiences.

A lineup of six talented individuals with disabilities showcased their skills in playing the guitar, the martial arts, dancing and comedy. Dozens attended the fun night and funds were raised through sponsorships from different SPEAC ally’s who attended the event. Roni Kleinman, the JCC’s executive director, emphasized the importance of recognizing the special abilities of individuals with disabilities.

“They’re such a cohesive club and so proud of themselves, and they’ve all grown and it’s so important to me and the JCC that people with different abilities are recognized for their ability and not their deficits,” Kleinman said. “Everybody has deficits, sometimes you can see them more in others, and we want to highlight the strengths of this group of people.”

Rockville Centre resident Ashley Gazes,38, grew up in Oceanside and is the coalition’s founder and president, and said she was inspired to start the group seven years ago, after being motivated from overcoming bullying in high school due to her disability.

“I got bullied when I was in school, and I didn’t have a lot of friends and I didn’t know who to come to,” she said. “Fast forward to when I came to the JCC and I needed some help, and here we are.”

Gazes’ coalition works alongside the JCC on issues such as transportation, housing, employment and overall advocacy.

“Our board members are really happy with all the progress that we’re making,” Gazes said. “It’s a lot of fun working alongside a great team. We’re all about inclusion. Inclusion is important in an advocacy group because you want to learn to be just like everybody else, and I feel like it came together.”

Harvey Weisenberg, a staunch advocate for those with disabilities as a former longtime state assemblyman, spoke at the event. Weisenberg was a special education teacher for 20 years and his son, Ricky, 65, was born with cerebral palsy. For Gazes, Weisenberg is also a longtime mentor, friend and father figure.

“God created a genius,” Weisenberg said of Gazes. “This young girl worked all through her life, childhood to young adult, to put together people and to bring happiness to the world.”

The JCC’s café, which has been closed since early on during the pandemic, has been renovated with the help of financial contributions from Weisenberg, to be used as a vocational training kitchen, employing those with developmental disabilities. The café, known as Harvey’s Café, will officially open later this spring.

In addition to enjoying the entertainment, those in attendance had an opportunity to learn more about the coalition’s programs and initiatives through interactive displays and presentations.

Fradeline Branagan, a disabilities coordinator at the JCC, spoke about the coalition’s commitment to providing resources and opportunities to individuals with disabilities, including different programs such as talent shows, game nights and friendship connection groups.

“It’s very rewarding working with them,” Branagan said of SPEAC. “They’re such a fun group of people and so capable at the same time. They manage the different meetings. During Covid, it (SPEAC) actually expanded outside of the Long Island area, and we have people in Florida, upstate New York, and in the city, so it’s been really nice being able to expand our reach.”

The JCC has demonstrated a continued commitment to supporting those with special needs through various programs. The JCC’s Long Beach site has a special gym for children with disabilities, and Kleinman said the plan is to be able to expand it to offer more programs.

“We’re very committed to growing our program for people with different abilities,” Kleinman said. “We’ve always had a small program for preschoolers with special needs, and our goal for next year is to really increase the services that we provide.”

This years event fund total had not yet been calculated As of press time, but Marcy Hallerman, JCC’s program director for social and support services, highlighted the success of the event and its impact on the community, adding that last year’s Red Carpet Event raised around $6,000 for the coalition.

“Besides our advocacy work, we do all kinds of classes and programs,” Hallerman said about the JCC’s programs for individuals with disabilities. “We do cooking classes. They can become a member of the JCC and be in an inclusive environment. We also started dating and relationship classes. I listen to parents and advocates and listen to what people really want to do with their lives and how they can especially be productive citizens. Then we make things happen. Coming to work every day and working hard is made worthwhile when I see how much of a difference we make in people’s lives,” she added.