Donors allow Jewish Family Services to grow despite COVID

JFS uses Uniper Care to keep in touch with the elderly. (UniperCare)

The agency still has 14 vacancies, said Wendy Uhrig, director of human resources, including a director of community initiatives, social workers and program managers.

JThanks to the generosity of the Jewish Community of Detroit and other funders, the Jewish Family Service (JFS) has been able to expand its staff and volunteer corps over the past two years, reconfiguring and adding services to help the community to cope with the stress of COVID.

Perry Ohren
Perry Ohren

The agency was able to quickly pivot to serve its consulting clients via Zoom, Facetime or videoconference rather than in person. Insurers have relaxed their requirements, making it easier for the agency to bill for remote services, CEO Perry Ohren said.

JFS provides mental health services (counselling), services for the elderly, and community safety net programs, such as one-time cash grants to cover emergencies.

Much of the recent expansion was made possible through grants that added $2 million to the organization’s annual budget, bringing it to $17 million. The infusion allowed JFS to increase its staff by approximately 11% to 125, which helped reduce community members’ wait times for services.

Wendi Uhrig
Wendi Uhrig

The agency still has 14 vacancies, said Wendy Uhrig, director of human resources, including a director of community initiatives, social workers and program managers.

The COVID pandemic has taken its toll on all of us, Ohren said. “Everyone on the planet arguably has more anxiety and depression than they did in the past.” And those who were JFS customers before COVID hit “need a little more than before.”

JFS helps 15,000 people each year and provides ongoing services to over 5,000.

Last year, JFS secured a grant from a partnership between Oakland County and United Way that allowed them to increase the number of emergency service recipients from 750 to 900.

Grants from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit helped JFS expand counseling services to Jewish day schools in the Detroit area; school social services staff increased from five to eight.

Marissa Preston
Marissa Preston

Marissa Preston joined JFS as an outpatient clinical psychotherapist in March 2021. Providing services remotely was a big adjustment for her as she previously worked in a residential treatment facility for children.

She mainly works with children struggling with isolation. “I think we can agree that COVID-19 has had an impact on almost everyone’s mental health,” she said.

JFS staff were also concerned about the social isolation of older people during the pandemic. Most of JFS’s approximately 1,000 elderly clients live independently, with workers visiting them at home if necessary. During the pandemic, Ohren said, direct social workers could continue to visit clients at home, but social workers and volunteers switched to remote connections.

Because many older people are less tech-savvy than younger adults, JFS offered them Uniper Care, a service developed by an Israeli company that makes TVs work like computers. With a TV remote, users can access Zoom and other internet programs on their TV. “A TV isn’t as scary to them as an iPad or a laptop,” Ohren said.

JFS transportation services have transformed to cope with pandemic changes, and none of its drivers have had to be laid off. Previously, the main task of drivers was to bring customers to appointments. They have had fewer requests for transportation during the pandemic, allowing for redeployment to food deliveries for Yad Ezra, the kosher food pantry, and increasing volunteer door-to-door delivery for kosher meals at home.

Volunteers wanted, too

The agency’s need for volunteers is also growing, said Melissa Pletcher, who joined JFS in October 2020 as director of volunteers after losing her previous job due to the pandemic. She is looking for volunteers to be social companions and technology advisors for seniors, provide pro bono legal services and deliver kosher meals to homes.

Pletcher said many supporters called JFS early in the pandemic to ask how they could help. In two or three months, they added more than 60 kosher meals-on-wheels volunteers, she said.

Although some of JFS’s increased funding has come in the form of one-time grants, Ohren says the agency expects to be able to continue the programs.

He expects the service needs of JFS to increase.

“There was a mental health crisis before the pandemic, which meant there weren’t enough helping professionals at that time for the injuries people needed help with. The explosion of the mental health crisis amid the pandemic, with so many more people in need of mental health support, has fully exacerbated the problems,” he said.

“We wait for the other shoe to drop. Years from now, we will still feel the impact” of COVID in terms of the number of people needing services, he said.

“This pandemic will have very, very, very long legs.”

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