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Shana Erenberg

Libenu — Skokie, Illinois

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Photo by Stephen Voss

We founded Libenu in 2010 to address the need for residential services for adults with disabilities in the Chicago Jewish community. Libenu (Hebrew for “our hearts”) provides kosher homes for adults with a variety of physical, cognitive, intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Libenu also provides social and recreational activities, partnerships for vocational training and day programs, leadership in community education and advocacy, and after-school and overnight respite programs, allowing caregivers and families to get a rare break.

The problem I’m trying to solve​

Individuals with disabilities have historically been marginalized, with limited opportunities for supportive housing, meaningful employment and recreation. Our respite programs were designed to meet the unique needs of families struggling to balance the needs of their child with special needs with the rest of their family, to reduce stress and improve their mental health. Libenu’s homes are designed so that people with disabilities can live comfortably and independently as fully included members in their communities. We thought about everything — from making the halls wide enough for wheelchairs to what kind of faucet handles and light switches would work for people without fine motor control. We built ramps that are discreet so they would blend into the neighborhood, and we talked to neighbors so they would embrace people who are different.​​

The moment that sparked my passion​

I’d had a long career in special education, and I had run a Sunday school for Jewish children with disabilities. I also have a private practice for diagnosis, remediation and advocacy for children and adults with disabilities. What I was seeing were children I’d worked with turn 21 and “fall off the cliff,” meaning they no longer qualified for services. The last straw was when a longtime friend who had an adult son with cerebral palsy decided to move to a state where they could find the services their child needed. My initial intent was to persuade other existing organizations to address this issue. I was going to motivate the parents to do it. But the parents are exhausted, and everyone else thought what I had in mind couldn’t be done. Quite frankly, nothing motivates me more than being told that something is impossible.​​

What I wish other people knew​

You can’t do it alone. We quickly brought people onboard who had a passionate feel for what we were doing and an area of expertise that could help us — philanthropy, real estate, psychology, law. When you are very passionate, it’s contagious. The more you do, the more people want to be part of your success.​​

Why my approach is unique​

I had visited housing and group homes for individuals with disabilities all across the country before we designed our first home, and I picked out the very best ideas. I continue to meet and talk with others doing similar work, and I keep looking for ideas that improve our organization. One core strength is that we don’t look for a reason not to do something — we look for a reason to do it, despite obstacles. We try not to say no. We also build long-term relationships and spend a lot of time helping people find resources. We build long-term relationships even if we can’t serve them directly or right away.​​

Advice to others who want to make a difference​

There are going to be things that you don’t know, even if you have a lot of expertise. I’m a leader in the disability field, but that didn’t mean I knew how to run a nonprofit. Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Seek out people you can collaborate with and share expertise. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t take no for an answer — even when it’s coming from yourself. And always try to find ways to help others recognize their own strengths, and shine that recognition on their accomplishments. The result is that our staff are dedicated people who feel like our clients are their own children.​​

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