Many of us remember our first professional break. The employer who hired us the summer before college when we had zero experience. The glowing recommendation that landed us an interview. The boss who mentored us and cheered our every success.

Now imagine that you’re a young person with autism or another developmental disability. Too often there’s no big first break because employers don’t see the potential beyond the disability.

That’s where the Adaptations Job Program comes in. Run by the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, and supported by UJA, the program gives young men and women in their 20s and 30s with disabilities their first real break. They’re placed in a six-month internship, where they can work on social and job skills, supported by a coach who provides daily on-site guidance to both the interns and their managers.

Putting our values into practice, we piloted the internship program right here at UJA. Over the course of more than two years, we’ve welcomed 11 interns who’ve rotated in virtually every department from human resources to catering to fundraising. After their time with us, seven of our interns have found permanent paid positions.

We have high hopes for the other four, who just graduated last week. At a small ceremony, the graduates spoke candidly, sharing what they learned from the experience, and thanking the supervisors who wholeheartedly believed in them. One young man from last year’s graduating class talked about landing his dream job at a gaming company, and movingly thanked his supervisor for taking a chance on him. The supervisor, in turn, talked about the young man’s can-do attitude and how grateful she was to have him on board. She jokingly called out the program director for underselling his skills, saying he is one of the hardest workers she knows.

At the end of the ceremony, everyone stood to take pictures, sharing hugs and handshakes. Graduates presented their supervisors with small plants as a token of thanks, and at that point, it was hard to distinguish between the tears and smiles. I don’t know who was beaming more — the participants in the program, or the staff members who worked with them.

Clearly, all were irrevocably changed by the experience.

UJA also invited a number of potential employers to the graduation to see firsthand the value this program can bring to their businesses. As we begin Autism Awareness Month, our hope is that we can spread the word so that more and more companies and organizations open their doors to young women and men who have so much to offer.

They just need one big break.

Shabbat shalom