Thursday, December 18, 2014

Celebrating Life, Renewal, and Hope at Chanukah

It has been a busy week (give or take a few days)! With the success of the survey results that was directly sent to survivors, we decided to add another component. We decided that we would reach out to the children of survivors and see if they have any thoughts on what their parents might need. During our town hall meetings in October we had a couple of children of survivors attend and they had some interested feedback on the needs of their parents, which led us to then wonder if we shouldn’t just ask their children at a special meeting. There is a group in the area here, called CHAIM that is comprised of the children and grandchildren of survivors.  We reached out to them and were invited to speak at their board meeting. We went and briefly explained what I am doing as a VISTA for JFS and the survivor community, and then asked them if they thought the children of survivors would want to have an opportunity to be heard. It was a resounding yes from everyone there and we agreed to collaborate for this phase of the needs assessment. CHAIM will provide the addresses to the children of survivors and I will develop a survey to assess their parent’s needs as well as a letter/flyer to invite them to a town hall meeting where they can come and not only discuss their parent’s needs, but also find out the services provided by JFS. At the board meeting, we found out that, many of the people in the community do not know what JFS does, or that we even provide assistance for survivors. With that in mind, we will be sure to include a fair amount of time during our town hall to discuss the services provided by JFS.

The next day I had the great fortune to be able to meet up with the Holocaust Advisory Committee that meets quarterly and is the group of survivors that help guide us in relation to our work with the Claims Conference. They have been a great help, and a major advocate, for my work here at JFS. I was able to share with them the preliminary results of the needs assessment survey and they were able to respond with their reactions, which were very positive. They agreed with all of the conclusions drawn so far and agreed that the children of survivors may offer an important window into the needs of survivors.

For years at JFS there has been discussions about generating a newsletter for the survivor community about a variety of topics of relevance to the survivor community (new indemnification funds, expansion or changes to services provided, community outreach information, etc.). With the recent announcement of an increase in funds from the Claims Conference and new indemnification funds coming available in the New Year, the feeling that we need to create a newsletter to inform the community has only grown. During our meeting with the committee we asked if they felt this would also be a worthwhile endeavor and they agreed that it would be good to have a newsletter a couple of times a year that keeps survivors up to date on what is going on both at JFS and in the complicated world of indemnification and the Claims Conference. We wanted to make sure that the newsletter represents the interests of survivors and asked if members of the committee would also be interested in working with me to develop the articles, etc. The thought was that this way the newsletter would focus on the questions of the survivor community as well as the information the survivor community needs. I’m very excited about this new project and look forward to working both with JFS, the Holocaust Advisory Committee and the local agencies that work with survivors.

Finally, I got to attend the December Café Europa event at the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park. This is always one of the best parts of my job. I get to sit and talk with Holocaust survivors. Not just about their needs, but also about what they have been doing lately, what I have been doing, the weather, whatever comes up. It is a great opportunity for me to remind myself why I am doing what I’m doing. This time the Café Europa was a special event. We got to celebrate Chanukah! Not being Jewish myself, I have never really participated in the traditions associated with the holiday, so this was an opportunity not only for me to learn, but also for me to be taught by an amazing group of survivors. We were joined children from a local Jewish school who come every year to meet survivors and learn what it was like when the survivors celebrated Chanukah as children and during World War II. It was an incredibly moving site to see the future generations of Jewish children sitting and eating potato latkes with survivors and discussing the past, and the future. This also gave me the opportunity to try my very first latkes, which was delicious and I would like to eat every day if I could! After we ate, a young man was called up to be offered congratulations by the group because he will soon have his bar mitzvah. After loud applause from his peers as well as the survivors, the real party began.  The music was a mix of traditional Jewish music and some newer more popular music. Soon enough a survivor had demanded I come dance with her and a young man from the school and the three of us were up and dancing to “I’ve got a feeling” which led to a great time explaining to the survivor what the song was about, and why someone would write a song like that. Either way, we had a lot of fun as we all danced around the room. This experience is one of the most touching and memorable ones I have had so far at JFS, and it reignited my passion for what I am here to do. 

Here are a few pictures I snapped at the Cafe Europa

Monday, December 8, 2014

What do survivors want, and how to find out

A few weeks have passed since my last post. It’s been a busy couple of weeks implementing the final stages of the needs assessment of the Holocaust survivor community. Since I last wrote, the first mailing of the survey reached a 56% response rate that is beyond our wildest dreams. With the success of the first mailing, I moved on to expand how many survivors we mailed the survey to. We had to compile lists from various programs, and then I had to build those into a mail merge so that I could actually send the surveys. The second set of mailings consisted of almost 200 more survivors that we had not yet heard from.  By doubling the amount of survivors we reach, I am hoping to not only reach a majority of our current clients, but also to get a full picture of the needs of the community. I am still getting quite a few surveys back every day, and the new combined response rate is  42% which is still high considering the fact I double the amount of people mailed.

In addition to the surveys and previous town halls, I built and deployed a survey for our Geriatric Care Managers (GCMs) to see if they had any feedback on services they thought their survivor clients could use. By being able to survey this group of people that have a different perspective on the needs of survivors I’m hoping to both corroborate the direct survey results, and see if there are needs that survivors either don’t think of, or are reluctant to admit.
The final phase of the needs assessment will come with the town hall meetings I am working on planning for the children and grandchildren of survivors. My hope is that they too can corroborate, or possibly provide additional feedback as to the needs of the survivor community. Once I have finished collecting the data I will build an official report and begin acting to improve the services provided to the community.

Meanwhile, while I wait for surveys to come in and work on the plans for future town hall meetings, I have been researching issue related to building volunteer based programs, while also taking a course through AmeriCorps in Resource Development. The course has been very helpful overall because it has allowed me to learn not only about the ethical standards required for fundraising and best practices involved, but how to write letters asking for donations, as well as how to apply for grants from larger institutions. Hopefully this information will come in handy when I am at the stage of developing new programs at JFS and need to find financial support for these initiatives.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Assessing the Needs of Shoah Survivors

Last week flew by! I was a little worried after having the extra days off for all of the Jewish holidays, but I always seem to find a way to fill up the time, plus some! On Monday, I attended the October Café Europa and got to meet even more survivors. I was able to introduce myself to the group and hand out copies of the flyers for our town hall meetings that were later in the week. I was also able to give out and collect surveys from survivors who knew they would not be able to attend the town hall events.  I also had the opportunity to talk to survivors about how they are doing, what AmeriCorps is, and what I am hoping to do with my time at JFS. It was an amazing opportunity to let the survivor community know what I am up to, and personally, it meant a lot to me to be able to sit and talk with them about anything, even if it was just about the weather or the quality of the pool at the JCC. All of the survivors have been incredibly welcoming and willing, if not eager, to talk to me and include me in their conversations, etc.

On Wednesday, we had our first town hall meeting. The first one was held at the Oak Park Jewish Community Center in Russian. I was a little disappointed at first because we only had one survivor show up. In hindsight, I am grateful that he came. We were able to not only find out his needs, but we were able to learn about his story, his life before, during, and after the Holocaust. It was a great opportunity for me to connect with a member of the Russian speaking population.  The following town hall that afternoon, at the same location, but in English we had a better turnout. We were able to get a lot of feedback from those that attended, and I was able to collect more survey responses from those we had not yet reached. 

On Thursday, we held two more town hall meetings. The first meeting was at JFS, and we had two in attendance. While two may not sound like a lot, we received a ton of feedback from those two people. They were able to bring up issues and needs that had not been brought up by the previous groups.  Our later meeting was held at the Holocaust Memorial Center and had a smaller than hoped for attendance. We did, however, have several caregivers also attend, as well as someone from hospice that was able to provide another dimension of feedback. All of the survivors and others in attendance that I met with were able to provide critical feedback that will help shape my direction over the rest of my year. One of the most touching things to happen was when survivors and their children took the time to thank me for what I am doing. I am excited to be able to help survivors in any way I can, and it took me by surprise to be thanked for taking a year and trying to make a difference.

Now that I am done with the town hall meetings, I will move on to other parts of my outreach and needs assessment. I am currently looking into more direct mailings of surveys to survivors to get more feedback, and we are looking into setting up town hall events for the children and grandchildren of survivors. My hope is that by talking to the children and grandchildren of survivors separately I will be able to hear more feedback, and possibly gain a different perspective on the needs of the survivor community. So far, we have had over 52% response rate for our mailed survey! That is very exciting, and I never expected to get such a great response rate. These are just a few of the things I am looking at doing in the near future. I am more excited now for the rest of the work I have the privilege of doing than I was when I started the job. 

Until next week... 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Spreading the Word

Welcome back everyone! With the shorter weeks for the holidays, I decided to take a break so I would have a little more to write about.  Quite a bit has happened since I last posted. Town hall meetings are taking place this week. Time sure is flying by! In the past two weeks, in addition to confirming the dates for the community meetings, I finalized the flyers, got assistance in translating them to Russian, and started flyering. With the help of the case workers and supervisors flyers have been going up all over town. Also, we decided to do a direct mailing campaign that includes the flyer and the survey in an attempt to get more people to come to the town hall meeting and to respond to the needs assessment survey.  The survey was also translated into Russian. I was able to directly mail about 200 survivors with a copy of the flyer in the appropriate language and included a copy of the survey as well with an addressed and stamped envelope. I have already received over 50 responses! In addition to the first wave of direct mailings, several hundred bilingual copies of the flyer were being stuffed into bills that went out last week. I am hoping that all of this work will lead to having a lot of feedback. The more feedback I have, the better job I can do in assessing the needs of the survivor community.  I am also thinking about doing a second mailing, possibly after the town hall meetings, with the survey and a letter explaining what I am doing and what information I’m hoping to collect. That way those that could not attend can make sure their voice is heard. All in all, about 660 flyers have been sent out through the mail and flyering campaigns.

So, this week we are holding four town hall meetings. Three of the town hall meetings will be in English, in a variety of locations, and at a variety of times, and one will be held in Russian for the Russian-speaking survivors. I am very proud of our effort to make sure to include the Russian speaking population as they can sometimes be overlooked. I hope that by translating all of our documents into Russian and having Russian-speaking representatives at the town hall, they will be able to come and express their concerns. Once I have collected all of the surveys I can begin to crunch the numbers and see what the common needs are. Additionally, my survey should help us identify those that would like me to meet with them one on one to discuss their needs, or those that would like additional follow up from either the resource center, or their current case worker.

Since I can never seem to do one thing at a time I have also started doing some research on best practices for working with survivors as additional support, or even differences in communication expectations may be needed based on the survivor’s experiences. My hope is to use this information to update the training materials we currently have for training volunteers, caseworkers, and possibly even elder care facilities that are not aware of the special needs for survivors. I have also received some great resources from a fellow VISTA I met at my national training in August that may lead to some new funding sources for new projects based on the needs assessment. I am very happy about all of the work I am getting done, and even more excited about the possibilities of where this first step may take me, as well as my organization.

Until next week… 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Committees, Cooperation, and Compassion: Integration at JFS

Last week was very exciting for me. I began my week by attending our Holocaust Survivor Advisory Committee meeting. The group meets quarterly and is required for our agency to work with the Claims Conference. Additionally, my work as a VISTA requires that I have a committee comprised of the community I am serving to help provide direct feedback on my efforts. The first meeting went incredibly well. My supervisor introduced me briefly and I continued, explaining the new federal initiative started by the White House, the deployment of AmeriCorps VISTAs around the nation to help with the effort, and what my plan was here at JFS of Metro Detroit.

Following my brief introduction, I was able to show the committee the flyers, advertisements, and needs assessment survey I have been working on for the last week or so. They were able to give feedback on parts they liked and did not like. They provided candid feedback and were not afraid to ask questions about why certain parts of the flyers were worded the way they were. They were very curious about why I specified both “Holocaust Survivors” and “Victims of Nazi Persecution” in the advertising materials. This brings up a very interesting part of my job here. Something I have learned since joining the team is that while many would consider a Holocaust survivor to be someone that survived a ghetto or camp, the definition we, and many others, use is not that clear cut. JFS uses the definition put forth by the Claims Conference. While it is very technical and varies based on different funds, essentially survivors did not have to have spent time in a camp or ghetto to be eligible for financial support or services through JFS. Because of this many people that do not consider themselves survivor would actually fit the broadened definition by the Claims Conference. For this reason, we decided that we should list both “Holocaust survivors” and “Survivors of Nazi Oppression” in an attempt to reach those that are not currently receiving assistance because they do not know about it. I am constantly reminded that my job here is not only to help those we are currently helping, but to also reach out and find those that need help, but do not know they are eligible to receive it. Overall, the meeting went well and the survivors seemed very excited about what I am doing here and were willing to help in any way possible.

The following day I was able to participate in the Jewish Senior Life Networking Professionals Meeting. This meeting allowed a variety of agencies that work with older adults in the Jewish community to come together, share resources, network, and learn about the special needs these clients have. This particular meeting focused primarily on the Holocaust and indemnification for survivors. This allowed me to introduce myself to the variety of organizations, etc. and let them know that I am here to help if they have any questions.  I enjoyed the opportunity to meet a wide variety of people that all work for one common cause, though it is through many different ways.
Finally, the highlight of my week was our all staff meeting at JFS, which is conducted annually. While I was at first a little unsure about the prospect of a 4 hour meeting, it ended up being a great opportunity. We spent the time meeting new people at JFS and working as a team to build better communication skills. We were able to see how interconnected various parts of JFS are, how many people it takes to do something as simple as get a flood victim a new furnace, and we even took time to discuss communication styles and how to ease tensions with those we work with that communicate differently than we do. Additionally, we rolled out our new mission statement, which I am a big fan of. It says, “Inspired by the wisdom and values of Jewish tradition, we strengthen lives through compassionate service.” I think that this new mission statement really does a great job of putting into words the general feeling that I get when working here. It is not just another office place. Yes, people are stressed, have hard days, and are eager for the weekends, but the atmosphere here buzzes with the excitement that every day we get to put ourselves out there and have a direct impact on people’s lives. As for compassionate service, I can say without a doubt this is something that is imbedded into the foundation of this organization. Every day my co-workers, supervisors, and peers are willing and eager to help me in any way possible. Whether it is answering a question, listening to a concern, or just providing feedback when I am not sure what to do next. If my co-workers can do this for me when I am new and doing a job that is a little outside the box, I have every confidence that they actively provide compassionate service to those they serve.

This post is for the previous week, but because our work week was shorter here due to the Jewish New Year I'm just now getting a chance to publish it. Since last week was only a couple of days long, and most of it was spent building a list of places for me to flyer for the new initiative I will just start with a new post next week about what I'm doing this week!

Until next week… 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meetings, Media, and Many Mensches

Last week was a whirlwind! While the previous week was spent learning the ins and outs of the office, helping with flood relief, and trying not to get lost in my own building (let alone the commute from one location to another). I spent last week meeting with my bosses, directors of various community organizations that work with Holocaust survivors, and developing new flyers and promotional materials for the new initiative I am part of.

I had the good fortune to meet with the director of the Detroit National Council of Jewish Women. This provided a great opportunity to learn about the history of the organization as well as the services they provide to the community. At first, I was a little nervous about going to the meeting alone, but it was fine. Everyone in this field has been very nice, and has been incredibly welcoming.  They provide so much to the community that I had not ever heard of. I enjoyed getting to talk about what I am here at JFS to do and how our two organizations can work together to meet these goals. The director was also able to provide suggestions on how I can get the word out about our town hall meetings through community groups, publications, new media, etc.

The following day I got to meet with the director of the Holocaust Memorial Center, and it was another great meeting that proved to be incredibly productive.  I was able to provide a brief overview of what I will be doing during my year of service, and what my goals are. Then we were able to discuss how I plan on going about locating survivors, providing a needs assessment, and ways to engage with the community. The director was able to provide some good ideas that, hopefully, should eliminate frustration for both parties, and will allow us to gather the information we want to collect. Additionally, he was kind enough to allow us to use some of his space if we need it for our future town hall meetings, etc. During my meeting with the director, I got to meet a Holocaust survivor, and got to explain to him what I am here to do. It was a profound experience to meet this kind man and hear him talk about his needs, things he has heard in his community, and to see his eyes light up when he saw that someone was interested in what he and his peers needed to make their lives better. On the way out of the museum, I got to meet another staff member who is excited about me joining the team and wants to plan some events where I can interact with the community in conjunction with the center. I left the meeting feeling awesome and refueled to keep working on this awesome job. It is not often that someone can leave a meeting feeling excited about their work, let alone on a Friday, but I was on a work induced high most of the weekend.

Until next week…

Friday, September 12, 2014

Happy Birthday AmeriCorps!

So this isn't my weekly post, I guess we will call this a supplemental post. I just wanted to take a quick moment to congratulate AmeriCorps on the celebration of its 20th birthday! Today is very exciting. Around the nation AmeriCorps members, alumni, and citizens will be participating in swearing in ceremonies. Below I've attached a couple of articles, YouTube videos, etc. about AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA, and why it is so important. Additionally, the upcoming year marks 50 years of AmeriCorps VISTA! Take a look and help us celebrate this important day!

CNN article about AmeriCorps and its creation:

AmeriCorps 20th anniversary video:

AmeriCorps VISTA 50 Year Promo:

Live Stream of AmeriCorps Swearing in at White House (Starts @ 11am):

AmeriCorps Celebration Website:

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Learning the ropes & hitting the ground running

Welcome to my new blog! As those who already know me are aware I have started a new position with Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit in Holocaust Survivor Services as an AmeriCorps VISTA through a new national initiative started by Vice President Biden. I am very excited to have this amazing opportunity to not only put my degree to use in a relevant field, but to also have the opportunity to work in the Jewish community, helping the approximately 25% of Holocaust Survivors that live in poverty. My job at JFS is to locate survivors who are currently not engaged with JFS, let them know they are eligible for a variety of social services, meet with current clients as well as future clients to discuss what new services they would need in the future, and ultimately develop a sustainability plan so JFS can continue to support its services for survivors.

My goal for this blog is to post about once a week to let my friends, family, fellow VISTAs, and most importantly, the community I'm here to serve see what I'm learning, planning, and doing. I first got into blogging after I graduated in May as part of my funding for my trip to Rwanda. During my trip I blogged for each day I was there, and was surprised at how many people came to read what I had to write! The response was truly overwhelming. If you're interested in that trip here is a link: This experience is what got me thinking about how I could integrate a blog into my year of service at JFS, through AmeriCorps. There are a lot of exciting things that I will get to do over the next year, and I'm sure many more things that I will learn. For AmeriCorps it is an exciting year as they are about to celebrate their 20th anniversary, and VISTA will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the coming year. I've joined at a very exciting, and historic, period in the long legacy of AmeriCorps service.

Last week was a whirlwind! I went to training the week before in Philadelphia, and started at my job site after the holiday weekend. I got to do some initial training, orientation, and all the normal paperwork associated with a new job. After the formalities were out of the way I jumped right in. I was able to shadow one of my supervisors at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Oak Park where my JFS was working with the community for flood assistance. For those of you that don't know, the Detroit area was hit hard about 3 weeks ago with heavy rains that caused a lot of flood damage. In some communities, such as Oak Park, the sewer system backed up and flooded residents basements with sewage. This has put a strain on the community at large, and an even bigger one on those that already live in low income households. JFS has partnered with many organizations to provide assistance with clean-up and recovery. This shadowing opportunity allowed me to interact directly with the community I will be serving, and really drove home a lot of the core principles I learned at my VISTA training. I had the opportunity to shadow both Tuesday and Thursday and both experiences were unique, and indispensable for learning about the community. Beyond this shadowing, I also had the opportunity to learn about the community I'm serving through a variety of meetings, manuals, and other training content that further expanded my understanding of those I am serving. I've also already started planning and development for the first in a series of town hall meetings and focus groups to allow me to better assess the needs of the survivor community, while finding more survivors and providing information about our services.