Frontline Initiative John F. Kennedy Jr. Tribute

Agency Believes in Kennedy Fellowship Program


Jules Feiman is the Human Resource Director at YAI

YAI National Institute for People with Disabilities (YAI/NIPD) is a health and human organization that provides comprehensive community-based services to individuals with mental retardation, developmental disabilities and learning disabilities, and their families. We currently serve the New York City metropolitan area inclusive of New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania in over 250 community-based programs. Founded in 1957 and formerly known as the Young Adult Institute, the organization has expanded its scope of services over the years and works with individuals of all ages. We serve about 15,000 people daily through about 3,000 staff. Additionally, YAI is a training institute providing management training as well as training for direct support staff in over 30 states. Currently YAI is honored to have almost 40 Kennedy Fellows employed.

YAI National Institute for People with Disabilities has always recognized that the quality of services that we provide is contingent on the quality of our staff, which is our greatest resource. We have always believed in providing a career path for our staff. When we first met John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Dr. William Ebenstein, we realized that Reaching Up shared the same vision and values which include tremendous respect for direct care staff providing an environment where staff can develop into competent professionals. At YAI we believe that the better educated direct care staff are, the better able they are to perform a multi-faceted job. To that end we encourage staff development through higher education.

One of John’s greatest legacies is his advocacy to ensure that at the City University of New York there is a curriculum in the field of developmental disabilities. While there was no curriculum at all before, now students are getting exposure in coursework. That has significant impact on people interested in the field as well as the general public. John has helped to reframe the perception of even those students who might not work in the field towards individuals with disabilities as a result of this coursework. That is a very powerful thing.

President Kennedy once said that “individuals with disabilities are victims of fate, let them not to be the victims of neglect.” John clearly understood this and acted on it. Many people know he had an aunt who had a developmental disability. Agency Believes in Kennedy Fellowship Program He experienced first-hand the impact of having an individual with disabilities in the family. Therefore, John clearly understood the importance of having a qualified, competent direct care workforce. 

John was committed to the professionalism of direct care workers. A profession is defined as a circumscribed body of knowledge that is recognized by the public. John was concerned not only to recognize those core areas of expertise and standardize them, but to also ensure that the public recognized and valued this expertise thus truly meeting the definition of a “profession.” John was very active on the national level helping to broker agreements on what those competencies are and the best way to credential direct care staff. YAI, in our training throughout the country, recognizes that core competencies need to be developed and standards set. In that respect there is tremendous synergy between the Reaching Up Foundation and YAI.

Our Kennedy Fellows come from all aspects of our programming, such as group homes, schools for adults and children, as well as community and family support programs. The Kennedy Fellows serve as role models and inspire their coworkers to move on to obtain their degrees, apply to the Kennedy Fellowship Program, and to see the intrinsic values of professionalism in this field. The Fellows have exhibited caring, sensibility, professionalism, and an ability to see the larger picture leading to a career in the field of developmental disabilities.

The Kennedy Fellowship Program has consistently helped the Fellows to achieve their aspirations. Individuals who never saw themselves capable of obtaining a college degree or struggled to make ends meet have, as Kennedy Fellows, experienced the tremendous exultation of obtaining a college degree. There is a tremendous sense of pride that they feel in themselves, let alone the respect they gain from family members and coworkers. Through the generosity of John F. Kennedy, Jr., the Mentorship, and support provided by the program, Kennedy Fellows have overcome a myriad of obstacles to attain their goals.

The Kennedy Fellows are individuals who clearly have demonstrated the ability to take on more responsibilities. We have found that they benefit from the mentorship experience. I personally have served as a mentor to a Kennedy Fellow and it has been a real gift to see the person that I work with explore his potential and a career in this field.

The Kennedy Fellowship Program is an important part of YAI/ NIPD’s staff development program. We have a kindred spirit with the goals and aspirations of the Kennedy Fellowship Program. We are so thankful to have had John as a spokesperson and a leader. His passing away is an irreparable loss. This program will be his lasting legacy. The Kennedy Fellowship Program and John’s initiatives on behalf of a competent, well trained, and professional direct care workforce must and will continue.