Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Christine DeSouza
Assistant Editor 

JFS Orlando­- the quiet agency


Arlene Vieira, emergency services caseworker.

On March 13, 1978, Jewish Family Services Orlando opened its door to help low-income families who found themselves in a crunch, and 36 years later, it is still helping people down on their luck. It is the Jewish Community's organized outreach into the community-for Jews and non-Jews alike. The agency isn't on the Jewish Community Campus. There's a reason for that. Located at 2100 Lee Road in Winter Park, it is on the bus routes, the means of transportation for many of the people who use the services provided by JFS.

The mission of the agency is to "provide vital, high-quality and innovative services to people in need, of all faiths, so they can overcome challenges and lead fuller, more structured lives."

Case in point: Milca came to JFS Orlando through her son's school. She and her husband were doing well and had a nice apartment. Then, unexpected events happened all at once: Their car broke down and needed repairs, the rent went up on the apartment and her family was suddenly in a financial bind.

"When it looked like we weren't going to make it, JFS helped us make it and gave us the tools we needed for every area in our life," she said.

Arlene Vieira, Emergency Services caseworker, was able to help Milca with her family's immediate needs-food and rent assistance. Vieira sees about five to six qualified families a day. In partnership with JFS, United Way screens possible clients and then refers them to JFS. People don't just walk in off the street.

Some people only need emergency services to get themselves back on their feet. Others need further assistance and Vieira will introduce them to Jascha Fields, who is the case manager of the Family Stabilization program. In this program, Milca learned budgeting skills, developed a professional resume and secured a work/study job at college.

The Family Stabilization program has had an 80 percent success rate since it was started 13 years ago. It's a six-month program with a follow up at one year and again at 18 months. Participants attend weekly classes on Tuesday nights and learn basics such as dressing for success, resume building, and money-management skills to maintain or improve employability and housing while reducing stress. The classes are led by skilled professionals who volunteer their time and there is no cost to the families who participate in the program.

JFS also provides professional counseling. Clinical Therapist Supervisor Teresa Brown, MSW, LCSW, with counselors Jill Schaffer, MA, and Soni McCarty, LCSW head the Center for Counseling, Growth and Development, which provides individual, couples, family and group mental healthy counseling, covering an array of problems that include marital, depression, behavior issues, and anxiety to name a few. These licensed counselors help assess problems, provide supportive and conflict-resolving counseling and guide people through major life transitions. JFS is one of the few remaining agencies in Central Florida that operates on a sliding fee scale and they accept most insurances.

JFS Orlando is probably best known for the Pearlman Pantry, which stocks enough food to feed about 80,000 people per year. An average of 20 families a day schedule appointments to receive food, which they can do once every six months. On the day this reporter visited the agency, the pantry was full. Two volunteers, Judith Hara and Lynn Thompson, were filling grocery bags with a list of food items for the families who would be arriving later. Thompson, who is a pharmacist, volunteers two hours a week and Hara is always "on call," as she put it.

Speaking of volunteers for JFS, there is always a need, and there are several areas in which volunteers can help. An added bonus is the heart-warming actions and reactions from people. "Publix once donated a birthday cake that was not picked up," said Hara. "We put it in one of the grocery bags and when the family came, the cake happened to be in one of the bags designated for them. Their little boy saw the cake and looked amazed and said, 'How'd ya know it's my birthday?'"

On another occasion, Thompson happened to be working in the pantry when a young couple covered in tattoos and piercings came up with two bags of groceries. They'd received food in the past and wanted to "pay back" JFS because "you all had helped us."

Breads and pastries (provided by two local Publix grocery stores), meats and other perishables are kept in three freezer, and fresh vegetables and dairy products are kept in a large refrigerator. Cereals, canned goods, pancake mixes and other items that have a longer shelf life are organized on shelves around the room. All this food would be gone in a few days.

Heather Betts, grants and pantry manager, handles the purchasing and organizing of all food that comes into the agency. Its shelves are restocked twice a week with purchases from Second Harvest.

"Eighty percent of the food is purchased from Second Harvest, where one dollar gets $6 worth of food, and 20 percent is from donations," said Betts. Publix delivers breads twice a week and Fresh Market supplies produce about once a week, not to forget the plethora of donations from various organizations-the Jewish Academy of Orlando had recently delivered several boxes of food; the Boy Scouts have a food drive in November and Mail Carriers have a food drive in May. The JFS website also provides viewers the opportunity to donate specific food items. Drag the cursor over "Services" and "Store" pops up, click on "store" and a variety of items are listed with prices that can be "added to the cart." It's an easy way to give.

JFS also provides a Chaplaincy. The on-staff cleric, Rabbi E. Arny Siegel, provides end of life services, burial or memorial services, and other visits, such as hospice, hospital or jail visits, to unaffiliated Jews. This program operates in partnership with the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis, Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando and Hospice of the Comforter.

And if all this wasn't enough! JFS also offers RIDE (Reliable Independent Drivers for the Elderly). This is a service for low-income seniors who need a ride to medical appointments at no cost. Transportation is provided by ITN (Independent Transportation Network) or Mears. Recently, JFS received a $10,000 donation for expansion of this program. For RIDE information and appointments call 407-644-7593 ext. 239 Monday, Wednesday & Thursday 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

One of two comfortable counseling rooms.

To be able to continue all these programs and services, JFS operates on a very tight budget-about $200,000 a year. The agency does not receive funds from the Federation at this time, and depends on grants and individual and corporate donations to maintain its staff and services.

"They say 'You can't judge a book by its cover,' and that certainly applies to me and many more who come to JFS," said Milca. "If we reach out for help, it doesn't mean we are not productive members of society. I hope you never need the help I did, but if you do, JFS will be there to help you."

For questions on how to give, or to make a donation by phone, please call Michael Cooper, JFS Orlando Development & Marketing manager at 407-644-7593 x241.


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