The face of new employment opportunity at the Jersey Shore is an energetic, sweet-natured Newfoundland named Holly.
Needed are more canines willing to take a walk and, in the process, help a job-creation effort in a part of South Jersey where the shrunken casino industry has left many people looking for work. In this case, the target group is individuals with greater obstacles to employment: people with autism and other disabilities.
The aptly named initiative, Paws Pet Care (http://www.jfsatlantic.org/services/paws), was launched in the fall by Jewish Family Service of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, its first social enterprise.
Last week, Holly gave work to Eve, who is in her early 40s and eventually wants to work as a kennel attendant, according to Nina Stolzenberg, a clinical psychologist and director of children's and transitional services at JFS. Eve was too shy to be interviewed but agreed to have her picture taken during her recent outing with Holly in Ventnor.
"Our ultimate goal is giving them the hands-on employment training that they can use for either expanded full-time or long-term employment," said Beth Joseph-Arentz, director of communications and donor relations.
Founded in the early 1900s as a volunteer organization providing services to refugees, the elderly, and the poor, JFS incorporated in 1976 as a small nonprofit and is now a nearly $12 million multiservice organization providing mental-health services, outpatient counseling, and aid to older adults, regardless of ethnicity, religion, and sex.
It also operates a food pantry that served more than 2,300 adults and children last year throughout Atlantic County. Those seeking help surged in the fall of 2012 when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Jersey Shore, and "have remained at the elevated levels," Stolzenberg said. "And that's obviously the result of casino closures and lack of employment in this community."
Consequently, JFS started a vocational-services program three years ago, including job coaching, workshops on social skills and education, and internship opportunities with local businesses .
"It was becoming very apparent that the economic situation was making it very difficult for anyone to get a job, and people with barriers to employment were facing even larger hurdles," Stolzenberg said.
Statistics on autism were particularly compelling, Joseph-Arentz said. She cited a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that one in 45 children in New Jersey is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the highest rate in the United States, Joseph-Arentz said.
When it comes to skills development, "a lot of the programming is focused on younger, school-age" individuals, Stolzenberg said. "When people reach adulthood, there are not as many programs that specifically meet their needs."
JFS consulted with social-enterprise programs in other parts of the country, finding that few actually provided employment for the groups it is their mission to help, Stolzenberg said. With Paws Pet Care, the idea was to create jobs for those with autism and other disabilities. Part of the inspiration came from Extraordinary Ventures in North Carolina, started by parents of young adults with autism.
Plus, JFS looked on help-wanted websites such as SitterCity.com and Care.com, to see what help people were looking for.
"We noticed that people in our community were requesting dog-walking," Stolzenberg said.
Another search revealed 1,500 dog licenses in Margate, where JFS has its headquarters, and the nearby communities of Ventnor, Longport, and Ocean City, Joseph-Arentz said. She attributed those to year-round residents.
"We anticipate the need will grow and the business will grow in the summer months," she said.
With the Small Business Development Center at Stockton University, JFS worked on a business plan and the application for $50,000 in grants over two years it received from the Kessler Foundation.
What followed was a search for job coaches who not only could provide guidance on employment skills but had experience with dogs as well. Currently, the Paws program has four dog walkers in their mid-20s to 40s.
A standard 30-minute walk costs $15; a 50-minute walk and companionship session (for the dog who won't eat while alone, for instance) costs $25.
There's also something for homeowners with no pets, but with yards that attract their business: an hour of cleanup for $15.
With a GPS-enabled app, pet owners can check when a Paws walker arrives and leaves, and where the walker takes a dog during a visit. Walkers also provide information on whether the dogs under their care ate during a visit or appeared to not feel well.
"They keep him out 30 minutes. They take a picture and text you," said Sarah Rennick of Ventnor, who has used Paws for Anthony, a 3-year-old spaniel/plott hound, and will again from May through September, when son Liam, 25, an Ocean City lifeguard, won't be available.
There's a decided advantage, Rennick joked:
"These people do not eat things from the refrigerator or stay for three hours and watch TV."