Florham Park—An organization is only as strong as its volunteers, which makes Jewish Family Service of MetroWest (JFS MW) an agency to be envied.
According to Reuben Rotman, Executive Director of JFS MW, “Our strong volunteer department works behind the scenes with all of our divisions to support and enhance the work of the social workers.”
There has been a push over the last several years to grow the JFS MW volunteer program in an effort to enhance the agency’s core programs. Rotman believes it is vital to the success of these programs that not every client interaction with the agency be limited to contact with a social worker.
“Volunteers can provide companionship and socialization, often at home,” said Rotman, “and sometimes this is what clients need most.”
Suzy Berman is the Coordinator of Volunteer Services at JFS MW, and believes that client-volunteer interaction has “a different feel than with a therapist who is not necessarily a community member. Some clients are just lonely and these visits mean so much. For many, it’s the only contact they have with people outside their homes during the week. It makes them feel like people are thinking of them and remembering them. Many clients don’t need a therapist, but can benefit from a friendly visit.”
“It is most gratifying and rewarding for me to hear the positive feedback from the senior citizens who receive volunteer visitors. The visits are so uplifting for them,” continued Berman.
There are a myriad of volunteer opportunities available through JFS MW within its four main divisions—Adults, Children and Adolescents, Older Adults and the Rachel Coalition. When a volunteer first contacts JFS MW, Berman meets with the person to learn about specific interests and talents that might be well matched to previously-identified needs and existing programs.
The Friend Advocate Program offers assistance to senior citizens still living in their homes, and begins with Berman providing an in-home full assessment to determine the senior’s needs. The goal of this program is to keep seniors living in their homes as long and as safely as possible.
“Sometimes clients have visual impairments or other medical conditions that limit their abilities, but they still wish to live independently. They may just need someone to write checks for them, or read their mail. Some clients need help paying bills, calling for benefits or scheduling appointments. These are not jobs for clinical social workers, but are perfect for a ‘Friend Advocate,’” added Berman.
The Program currently has 33 volunteers, but that number has been as high as 50. Some volunteers have worked with the same client for 10 years, while some clients and volunteers cycle in and out of the program. Volunteers are all ages, from young adults in their 20s to adults 55+. The program is free to seniors throughout Essex County.
In addition to home visits, there are delivery programs centered around major holidays. At Rosh Hashana, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Purim, Passover and Shavuot, volunteers gather to prepare holiday-themed food packages that are then delivered to community seniors. This is an opportunity for children to assist in a volunteer experience, and often the children add a homemade craft to the packages.
Project Cares provides friendly visits to seniors residing in four Jewish Community Housing Corporation apartments located in South Orange, West Orange and Irvington. These seniors have been identified by social workers, resident managers, family members, hospitals and others as individuals who might benefit from having someone to help with bills, play cards, do craft projects, or even have Yiddish conversation. This program is enhanced by Bar and Bat Mitzvah students who spend time with the seniors in an informal environment, which is extremely fulfilling for all participants.
Listen to Children is a volunteer opportunity in which senior “listeners” meet with a Livingston elementary or middle school student for ½ to one hour a week during the school year. Students are usually identified by a parent, teacher, principal, or guidance counselor, often due to situations such as bullying, socialization issues, learning challenges, change in home status and more. The program, in its 15th year and funded by the Livingston Municipal Alliance Committee and Livingston Town Council, provides these students with a bonding opportunity that goes beyond that of teacher-student or therapist-client.
“Students often view their ‘listener’ as a surrogate grandparent,” said Berman.
There were 37 students in the program this year, with 25 “listeners.” These seniors meet monthly and are trained in listening skills and other methods of reaching a reluctant child.
Memory and Music is a program that has primarily been in nursing homes whereby volunteers create personalized playlists for dementia patients. Caregivers provide the volunteers with a list of songs important to the senior, such as songs from their childhood or married life, and these volunteers use donated ipod shuffles and itunes gift cards to create the playlists.
In addition to opportunities for Bar and Bat Mitzvah-aged students to visit seniors or prepare holiday packages, there are other Mitzvah Project options available, including creating packages for Rachel Coalition families, helping with shopping for an older adult and more.
Volunteer opportunities at JFS MW extend beyond its own borders as well, with positions available in nonprofit agencies throughout Essex and Hudson counties. Stephanie Grove is the Director of Retired & Senior Volunteer Program Center of Essex and Hudson Counties (RSVP), which is a JFS MW program dedicated to connecting community members 55+ with these volunteer opportunities. The program is federally funded and exists in every NJ county. JFS MW currently has 132 volunteers and a network of 58 nonprofits, with its volunteer goal being 400 at the end of the current three-year grant period.
Grove believes the program is vital because “other organizations may or may not have volunteer coordinators, but all are interested in having volunteers. RSVP helps the nonprofits because we recruit those volunteers.”
Like Berman, Grove can create volunteer positions for people based on their interests and talents. Often, these volunteers are still working or semi-retired, and there are one-time or short term opportunities available in addition to longer term situations. A groundbreaking new report from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) provides the most compelling evidence to date establishing an association between volunteering and employment. The study, “Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment: Does Volunteering Increase Odds of Finding a Job for the Out of Work?,” finds that unemployed individuals who volunteer have a 27 percent higher likelihood of being employed at the end of that year than non-volunteers.
For Berman and Grove, the focus is on both the client and the volunteer. There is extensive screening and training of volunteers in an effort to ensure the safety of the clients, especially in the case of home visits to seniors. Full interviews are done and the volunteer is matched to the program or opportunity which seems to be the best fit. The coordinators maintain an ongoing relationship with the volunteers and situations can be changed as needed.
Core grants support many of the JFS MW volunteer programs, which enhances the agency’s ability to manage the volunteers.
“Our agency cannot be fully comprehensive without a large volunteer service. It helps round out what the agency provides to the community,” said Rotman.
To volunteer or for more information on volunteer opportunities within the JFS MW divisions, please contact Suzy Berman at [email protected] or 973-637-1747. For volunteer opportunities or information on RSVP, contact Stephanie Grove at [email protected] or 973-637-1766.
By Jill Kirsch
(final installment in the series)