Jewish Family Service Social Workers on the Front Line

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This article was originally published in The Jewish Observer.
October 1, 2020
by Barbara Dab

The Jewish Family Service of Middle Tennessee provides a broad program of assistance to families throughout the region. From adoptions to counseling to financial planning and guidance, JFS social workers are the ones on the front line delivering these services. In particular, the current COVID-19 pandemic has meant many families find themselves struggling financially. And, for social workers this also means that meeting the needs of the community requires adjustments. To learn more Toni Jacobsen, Clinical Director of JFS, answers questions about how the agency is pivoting to help those in need of financial assistance during this time.

1. What types of financial assistance do you provide?
At JFS, we provide need based, confidential financial assistance for the Jewish community. This can range from assisting someone with housing or utility bills, providing school supplies or Hanukkah gifts to parents, monthly food boxes to qualified families and counseling on a sliding scale basis.

2. Can you describe what a typical day is like for you?
There isn’t a typical day at JFS. We never know who might call for assistance and what the situation might entail. I am always waiting for the surprise need to present itself, but I relax knowing that we have the resources to help the community and the flexibility to meet their unique needs.

3. Describe a moment that felt particularly gratifying to you?
Sometimes families who have been served through our Financial Assistance (FA) program come back to us and help serve others through donating to the School Supply or Hanukkah Gift Program. I remember the sweet little smiles on the children’s faces the first time they brought in the gifts for their sponsored child. Most families served are working people who, through no fault of their own, are facing a financial crisis. It can happen to any of us. Many of these families are willing and able to help once they are financially stable again.

4. When have you felt frustrated or unsatisfied about the work and why?
Sometimes I feel frustrated when I am talking to someone who could benefit from FA and they turn it down because they feel that they are not indigent and do not want to take away from someone who needs it more. In fact, most of our cases are not indigent families. All of us have moments when we have financial strain caused by an illness or other emergency. If you don’t have a sufficient emergency fund set aside, you will find yourself in financial need and that is where we might be able to help. Helping one person does not take away from anyone else. Our FA program is well funded by The Federation and there will always be enough for everyone.

5. What makes JFS’ FA different from other social service agencies?
Our FA programs differ from other local programs in quality and quantity. We are able to help someone with rent or a bill in a more significant way. Other agencies can help with up to a few hundred dollars at a time, but we are able to help with larger amounts and truly get people back on track financially. We also complete a financial assessment and assist clients in altering their budget with the goal of helping them be self-sufficient. At times, we might deny financial assistance until changes are made in order for the clients to live within their means. Common changes to the budget include lowering cable and phone bills.

In terms of the school supply program, we not only provide students with what they need for school, but we give them enough supplies to have at home and for refills throughout the school year. Our Hanukkah program is unique in that we ask the parents for a wish list of 5 gifts under $35 and then we assign volunteer donors to shop for the specific items. The parents give the gifts to their children and the child doesn’t know that we are involved. We maintain the parent’s dignity at all times, and we want the children to have a bright holiday receiving gifts that make them happy.

For the Kosher Food Box Program, we are different in that we purchase the food from Publix. We do accept donations, but they are always put on a small cart for people to get what they want. Our food is diverse and provides basic staples that we believe most people will eat. I personally try every item we add to the box. You won’t find beets or asparagus in the box because not everyone likes these, but you will find green beans, corn and mixed vegetables.

6. What is the hardest thing about this area of your job?
The hardest part of financial assistance is assisting individuals or families and knowing they will continue to struggle financially. Early in my years at JFS, I often wondered how the families managed to make ends meet. That is when I had the idea of providing food on a regular basis to give them a little wiggle room for necessary expenses like medication. We started with a pilot program of a few boxes of food in the corner of our office and we delivered a sample box to elderly seniors who were known to us. We weren’t sure how the program would be received but it quickly took off.

7. What is the most rewarding aspect about providing financial assistance?
The most rewarding aspect of financial assistance is working with the clients. Sometimes it is difficult for people to ask for help. I try to make the experience as comfortable as possible. We are here to help and proceed with the assumption that we will provide financial assistance within the set parameters unless there are valid concerns. In the end, most FA clients feel good about the process and are comforted to know that we are available if an emergency should arise in the future. It is rewarding to see someone who approached you in a nervous, worried way end the process with a relaxed and thankful smile.

8. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work, both positively and negatively?
Covid-19 has caused havoc in the way we provide all our services. For FA, I am working with clients remotely and it is more difficult to develop a relationship. Oftentimes client’s fears will be alleviated after meeting face to face. They see that we are kind and respectful and not judging them. I have to work harder at putting people at ease over the phone. We typically require everyone to meet with us before receiving assistance, but this is put on hold right now due to Covid-19.

9. What are you looking forward to at this moment?
I am looking forward to life getting back to normal. The situations that people are finding themselves in during a pandemic sometimes feel unsurmountable. Evictions, job loss and COVID-19 positive individuals quarantined without an income. Life before COVID-19 was simpler and more straightforward in terms of our ability to help alleviate financial stress for our clients. I am also looking forward to seeing people face to face to more easily convey that we are a helpful and friendly resource here to assist the Jewish community.

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