Celebrating 170 years of caring
Every day, the telephone rings at the home of Richard, a Richmond widower (who asked that his real name not be used). Since his wife’s death several years ago, he’s had trouble coping, he said, and the daily call makes his day.
“Every morning I get to talk to people who actually care about how I am doing,” Richard said. “They make me feel like somebody.”
Those phone calls come from volunteers at Richmond’s Jewish Family Services (JFS), a nonprofit human services agency that started as the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Association 170 years ago this year.
Among those volunteers is Irving Scherr, a retiree who’s been on JFS’s telephone reassurance team for 15 years. He checks in with older or isolated people to see, for example, if they’re out of bed and have had breakfast.
Scherr, married to his wife for 62 years, said he particularly enjoys calling “lonely widows, the suddenly single, to give them companionship and bring a little ray of sunshine into their lives.”
Although he has never met many of the people on the other end of the line, he feels he knows them. “I bring a little joy and let them know we care,” Scherr said.
Meeting needs since 1849
With the motto “Transforming lives, Strengthening our community,” Jewish Family Services is a cadre of professional and volunteer caregivers who love caregiving.
Since 1849, it has helped, among others, Confederate soldiers, widows, orphans, refugees, transients, draft dodgers, the sick, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the lonely, the unemployed, runaways, children, families — basically, anyone needing support.
The group provides an array of services — from adoptions to home health care to companionship — to people in the Richmond area of all ages.
“People ask, ‘What can you do?’” CEO Wendy Kreuter said. Her answer is, “What do you need?”
That in a nutshell is the philosophy of Jewish Family Services. With a staff of 150, “If we can’t do it, we can find a resource” who can, Kreuter said.
She added that their nurses, social workers, LPNs, RNs, home care aides and others “learn a lot as we go. We’ve changed with the times.”
The organization practices the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) through acts of kindness and service. But its services are available to all, regardless of religious affiliation (70 percent of its clients are not Jewish).
Many social services, such as the YMCA and Catholic Charities, have their origin in churches, which fulfilled a need long before social services became a paid or degreed profession.
Similarly, in 1849, women from Richmond’s Beth Ahabah synagogue, inspired by Rabbi Maximilian Michelbacher, formed the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Association.
“To Jewish women, charity was more than a nice gesture. They considered it their duty as Jewish women to help the unfortunate,” wrote Peter Opper, a previous executive director, in a history of the organization.
A dedicated staff
In fiscal year 2018, the nonprofit served about 1,450 clients with about 135,000 hours of services. Sixty-four percent of the clients earn less than $25,000 per year, and over half use Medicaid or Medicaid waivers as their primary health insurance.
Jewish Family Services, which is supported solely through grants, foundation support and donations, helps clients navigate the financing.
The group’s home care division, staffed by 100 skilled medical professionals, serves 82 clients who receive medical care in their homes. Services include nursing care, physical and occupational therapy, and assistance with daily activities to help people stay at home and avoid hospitalization.
One client named Clive, who asked that his last name be withheld, shared the story of his mother, Sarah (not her real name), and her Jewish Family Services aide, Ruth.
“Ruth comes every day and helps her with bathing, housework and washing up. When Ruth came, Mom’s whole demeanor changed,” Clive said.
“She was on a downward slide. But when Ruth arrived, Mom could again do all the things she wanted to do because she had Ruth to go with her. Shopping, hair appointments…my mom is even teaching her to cook. She and Ruth are the best of friends.”
Sarah adds, “I don’t have many friends because I [moved here] when I was 72 years old. Ruth is an absolute blessing.”
Lisa Colegrove, the nonprofit’s director of Care Support Services, says people needing help often say to her, “I don’t know what I don’t know. I don’t know where to go [for help].” Jewish Family Services figures it out.
Colegrove coordinates the needs of 40 clients — including health care, grocery shopping, laundry, bathing and meals — whether the person is at home or living in a facility.
“I give the family peace of mind,” she said. An example: One client named Marjorie (last name withheld) struggles with physical and mental disabilities and hesitated to trust others because of some negative past experiences.
But a staffer, Lisa, gained Marjorie’s trust. “It would be really hard without them,” Marjorie said of JFS. “Not many people listen to me, so I need Lisa to advocate on my behalf.”
Another team provides personal care management for people age 40 to 105, including people with disabilities. They help with medications, and make sure medical records are shared among various providers, for example.
The team also takes on money management, paying bills, walking pets, rehoming pets and even remediating mold. Once, they even helped a client buy a washing machine.
Another program called “friendly visitors” sends people to clients once a week to chat and play games like checkers. If there’s anything amiss, the volunteer finds help.
JFS also provides counseling to more than 1,000 children, older adults, couples and veterans. And last year, JFS partnered with Connecting Hearts to help facilitate adoptions with a focus on reducing children of all ages in foster care.
Sydney Fleischer, JFS chief operating officer and a clinical social worker, grew up in Richmond, moved away and came back. Why does she do this work? “It’s meaningful. So many things make you feel good.”
She remembered a story about a woman who had fallen at her home. When the emergency personnel arrived, the only thing in the woman’s wallet was a card that said, “Call JFS.”
Compassionate care, empowerment, respect, helping people over the lumps and humps of life, Jewish Family Services is always there.
That’s why Scherr has volunteered for the group for 15 years and counting. “It’s fulfilling. I’m a mensch, someone who gives of themselves,” he said.
“Over time we become part of the family,” Kreuter said. “We’re here for you.”
Calling all volunteers
Last month, a rather unusual new volunteer walked into the office of Jewish Family Services. He was born in a concentration camp. Yet the Holocaust survivor wasn’t seeking help from the group; he was offering it.
“The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Some people have been so good to me that I want to give back,’” said Judy Marston, director of the senior engagement and volunteer services programs at Jewish Family Services. “He’d been helped by so many families and people along the way…and that’s why he wanted to give back.”
Launched more than a dozen years ago, the senior engagement program trains and utilizes about 60 volunteers. Most of them are retired because retirees tend to have the most free time, Marston said.
Her team is responsible for making “reassurance calls” —checking in with 45 clients every day to have a bit of social conversation and make sure they are doing well. If no one picks up the phone, the callers try again shortly. “If we can’t get them by the third call, we’ll reach out to their emergency [contact’s] number,” Marston said.
Marston’s volunteers are motivated to make the calls because they know it’s fulfilling work. “As we get older, you begin to realize how many people don’t have family members left, or their kids don’t have time to call them,” Marston said. “The folks who [do the calling] say it’s just as important to them as [to] the people they call.”
As for her newest volunteer, the Holocaust survivor, Marston said he joked that he had another motivation for donating a few hours a week to Jewish Family Services: “It gives him a chance to get out of his house and get away from his wife for a while.”