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Working towards better lives for the learning disabled

Kisharon's latest venture is is Equal, a bespoke charity shop selling designer homeware and gifts at the Golders Green end of Finchley Road.

    Meir Halpern’s parents feared he would never get a job or develop the skills needed to look after himself independently.

    But today, aged 31, he earns his own income thanks to Kisharon’s Adult Employment Programme, which helps those with learning disabilities into the workforce.

    Originally from Manchester, Mr Halpern is employed one day a week by Golders Green chartered accountants Cohen Arnold to carry out administrative tasks.

    Greeting the receptionist, he signs himself in and directs me to his desk in the office he shares with three other members of staff.

    “It is fun,” he says of his work as he shows how his scanning of documents is key to digitalising some of the firm’s old paperwork.

    Mr Halpern is one of 40 people with learning difficulties currently in paid employment thanks to the learning disability charity’s programme.

    As well as serving Cohen Arnold, he also has jobs at the Jewish Leadership Council and Torah Temimah Primary School.

    Cohen Arnold partner Dov Z Harris says that having Mr Halpern as an employee has changed the culture of the office and improved its services.

    “A lot of our business is done electronically but there is still a demand for some administrative work — and it is hard to find people to do it.

    “Meir is helping with that and it is very beneficial to us. If we didn’t have him doing it we would have to find someone else.

    “But someone else might get distracted or bored with the task. Meir is focused, he takes his time and his attention to detail is better than anyone.”

    Mr Harris adds that employing Kisharon clients has stopped the company “becoming insular. You can’t represent your clients to the best of your ability if that happens.”

    For Kisharon chief executive Bev Jacobson, Mr Halpern’s experience demonstrates the benefits to both employee and employer.

    “Before, someone like Meir would have been in a traditional all-day service, his whole network of individuals being the same.

    “Each time you take a person like Meir into a new environment, you are opening them up to experiences that are essential for their development.

    “You see their behaviour changing to adapt to the environment. And that is what we have seen with him.”

    Cohen Arnold is one of 80 firms, Jewish and non-Jewish, which offer employment to Kisharon clients.

    “The feedback we have had from employers is that having someone with learning difficulties in the working environment improves things,” Ms Jacobson explains. “Suddenly people are more sensitive to each other and are more willing to help other people. It breaks down barriers.”

    Yet it is not always easy convincing bosses of the merits of the scheme.

    “The challenge sometimes is getting people to see it as a benefit,” says Simon Saunders, Kisharon’s head of social enterprises.“They worry about things like retention, or that things won’t get done properly.

    “Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. We work hard to match the individual with an opportunity they will excel in.”

    According to Mr Saunders, one of the best ways to convince employers is to tell them about Kisharon’s own ventures.

    Its latest is Equal, a bespoke charity shop selling designer homeware and gifts at the Golders Green end of Finchley Road.

    Unlike conventional charity shops, the frontage is chic and inviting, the window displays the standard of a high street boutique.

    It is staffed by Kisharon clients, whose roles range from serving behind the counter to packing and designing products that are sold alongside the high end items.

    “The idea behind the shop is that is supports itself,” Ms Jacobson explains. “We are trying to be innovative in our thinking and to create opportunities for our clients at the same time.”

    Her daughter Talya, also a Kisharon client, takes enormous pride in the matchboxes she has painted being sold in the store.

    The 22-year-old, who is at college, also helps to pack sweets which are sold in Equal.

    “I’ve been working for about a year. I like it because they pay me straight away,” she says.

    The enterprise also counters a perception within the community that Jewish charity shops are run-down and not particularly interesting.

    “They have had this gloomy image of selling useless items. We want to be different,” Ms Jacobson says. “We don’t want to compromise on quality.

    “So while people might come into the store to buy a gift for Shabbos or a birthday, they can pick up items made by our clients. And these are things they should want or need.”

    Clients are even involved in helping to source products for the shop.

    “We have put together a group who go to trade shows and pick out what they think our customers want to buy,” Mr Saunders reports.

    “It is a great because it means people are getting involved at different levels of the business. It gives them a real sense of pride to know what they think matters. That is what anyone in any job wants.”

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