Gesher program bolsters inclusion, promotes community
InclusionCreating change by building connection

Gesher program bolsters inclusion, promotes community

'We will learn new ways to serve and support our participants. And we hope to share those with everybody because we want to keep growing too.'

Gesher Program Director Mary Hart and David Goodman (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)
Gesher Program Director Mary Hart and David Goodman (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Dedicated educators, fitness trainers and community staffers are increasing inclusion by providing afternoon programs for young adults with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The activities, which promote socialization and reliance on gross motor and critical life skills, occur within the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Mary Hart has overseen the Gesher Program for approximately 18 months.

“I love all the people here,” she said. “Everyone is just wonderfully supportive.”

Four days a week, Hart is joined by colleagues and 13 or 14 members of the Gesher program for fitness sessions, as well as hours spent cooking, learning about nutrition and bolstering technological prowess.

One of the goals, Hart said, is for participants to “create things and not just use things.” So whether it’s making a meal, setting up an email account or developing a Facebook presence, “We wanted people to be able to communicate.”

David Wilf and Shay Moffat (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Operated by the JCC for nearly 30 years, Gesher has grown since its 1990s inception. “As we started to see more of a need for people with different abilities, we expanded our offerings,” Annie Schroeder, the JCC’s marketing and communications coordinator, said.

Initially bundled within the center’s cluster of after-school activities, the program was redeveloped into a standalone service catering to young adults, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 30s.

Gesher members don’t necessarily attend every day, but there is a constant thread, Hart said: “This is a very loving program where everyone is treated with kindness and everyone is accepted.”

Being Jewish isn’t a requirement for membership. Still, Gesher incorporates  numerous Jewish activities, including singing songs about the holidays, being mindful of kosher restrictions and praying before meals.

Annie Kostovny, the JCC’s fitness and wellness coordinator, has worked with Gesher for years.

Initially, Kostovny met with participants to “walk and play games,” but she and Hart decided that time with a fitness instructor was better spent focused on intentional cardiovascular movement, so Gesher members now use their sessions to ride stationary bicycles, use rowing machines and work with individual trainers, Kostovny said.

The program ensures that a commitment to wellness is fostered, she continued: “We’re getting people to do it more, and we’re finding ways to make it inclusive and fun and interesting and helpful.”

Annie Kostovny and Pedro Pereira-Nascimento (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Best practices drive Kostovny’s approach.

Having recently earned an Inclusive Fitness Specialist Certificate from the American College of Sports Medicine, Kostovny said her training was a boon to generating client success: Whether working with neurodiverse or neurotypical individuals, having this knowledge base “made me a much better trainer and better able to make people feel more comfortable, use their time better and see more benefit from their training sessions and their workouts.”

Sandee Moffatt praised Gesher, both as a staffer and parent of a participant.

Moffatt began working at the program about two years ago. Her daughter, age 22, regularly attends.

“She goes down to work out with Annie. She sees a friend from EKC and they automatically have a connection,” Moffatt said.

With February marking Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, staffers are happy to raise Gesher’s profile; still, the program is a part of a longstanding organizational mission.

“Gesher is constantly evolving to meet the need,” Schroeder said. “We’re always focused on the future, on how to make this more accessible, on how to make our JCC programs more accessible, and on how to make this a place where truly anyone with any ability or background can come in here and say, ‘The JCC is for me.’”

That commitment to inclusion propels the program forward, Hart said: “Your son, or daughter, or your client is welcome here, and we will learn from them. We will learn new ways to serve and support our participants. And we hope to share those with everybody because we want to keep growing too.”

People should know that “there’s no judgment at Gesher and we’re always modifying to meet a member’s needs,” Moffatt said.

The ability and willingness to adapt is one of the program’s greatest strengths, according to Gesher staffer Sara Masters.

Individuals aren’t considered as if they’ve “hit the ceiling,” she said. “You look at where they are now and take them further.”

That journey enables everyone to flourish, Masters added. Gesher members and the larger community understand that they “have a purpose in society … and that they can actually gain traction and help other people.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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