Easterseals celebrates centennial enriching the lives of people with disabilities

52-year-old Joe Literra is celebrating an anniversary — he’s been participating with Easterseals for seven years. On this day he’s learning something new: how to sew.

“There’s always something to do. No matter when you come, you’re always doing something different, not the same old things,” he said.

Literra and the other program participants are making dog beds for the ASPCA.

“Our purpose is to create opportunities for people with disabilities and special needs to live in their community, to work in their community, to play in their community, just like anyone else wants to do,” said Anysa Holder, vice president of communications for Easterseals NJ.

“We’re here to help them with their goals so they can reach that next level of living out in the community,” said Ashley Jefferson, direct support personnel for Easterseals NJ.

Literra isn’t the only one celebrating an anniversary. This year marks Easterseals 100th birthday.

“Easterseals was started back in 1919 by our founder Edgar Allen, whose son was actually hit in a car accident. And as he was going to the hospital, he realized a lot of other children with disabilities were segregated from their families and from the community, so what he decided was there was an organization that was needed to serve them in the community while providing the services they needed,” Holder said.

In 1919, Allen founded the National Society for Crippled Children. Fifteen years later, the organization launched its first Easter “seals” campaign as a fundraising effort. Donors put the seals on letters and envelopes to express their support. Over the years, the Easter “seal” became so well known that the organization formally adopted the name “Easterseals.” The national organization serves more than 1.5 million children and adults with disabilities and their families, along with veterans and seniors, says Holder.

“All of us have different obstacles we face in living our best life, but individuals with disabilities have specific obstacles that they’re dealing with and might need a little bit more support. So our goal is to provide those supports,” said Holder.

“It’s helped me a lot since I first came,” said Literra. “It has helped me open up to be more social to people, to open up and be less nervous and less scared about meeting new people.”

In New Jersey, there are about 100 Easterseals locations across the state offering everything from employment services to recreational activities.

“Most of our programs are state-funded by programs like Medicaid, but we also receive individual donations from the community, as well as corporate sponsors,” said Holder.

The Easterseals adult day-training program is five days a week — Monday through Friday — from about 9:30 to 2:30. The goal of the program is to help participants learn daily-living skills within the community, like socialization and financial literacy.

The participants also spend a lot of time volunteering at various organizations. Manuel Pineiro says he likes staying active.

“I don’t like doing nothing. I like doing something. When I come here, I like to do things,” said Pineiro.

“It feels like a whole big family, like brothers and sisters to everybody,” said participant Joyce Smith.

Holder says she wants participants to see their own potential and for people to focus on their ability, not their disability.

“It’s hard to explain what that feeling is to know that you have made someone else’s life better. That’s why we do what we do everyday here, to know that we’ve enriched someone life is an unspeakable emotion and feeling,” Holder said.