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JCFS and Gwen Secter Centre continue to provide key supports during pandemic

Al Bennaroch, JCFS Exec. Director
Becky Chisick, Gwen Secter Centre Exec. Director

Ever since the COVID pandemic first began to have a major impact in our community I’ve been reporting on how various agencies have been meeting the needs of those sectors of our community that have been most affected by COVID – whether that’s in the form of regular meal deliveries, grocery shopping, psychological counseling, or simply keeping in touch with isolated individuals.

In our June 10 issue, for instance, I reported how both the Gwen Secter Centre and Jewish Child and Family Service had stepped up their efforts in response to the needs of members of our community, especially seniors. (The JCFS typically serves between 500-600 seniors a year, JCFS Executive Director Al Bennaroch noted at that time.)
In that June 10 issue, I referred to a conversation I had with Cheryl Hirsh Katz, Manager, Adult Services at JCFS, in which I asked Cheryl whether she had seen a marked increase in the agency’s seniors caseload.
Cheryl indicated that had indeed been the case – which, at that time, she explained, was primarily as a result of the Jewish Federation’s having enlisted volunteers to call seniors (and other individuals in the community who found themselves in particularly unfortunate circumstances as a result of the pandemic). Many seniors had been referred to JCFS as a result of those phone calls, Cheryl noted.
“We’ve identified those of our clients who are most in need,” Cheryl said.
“We have capacity to take on more clients,” Cheryl added then, and 20 more clients were, in fact, added to JCFS’s caseload to that point in June.
While JCFS does maintain an “emergency food pantry” to help individuals or families in urgent need of groceries, “there hasn’t, as yet, been an increase in demand”, Cheryl observed back then.
What there has been though, is “an increase in demand for emotional support,” Cheryl said.
“Individuals who have had illnesses” have found themselves isolated and, one other agonizing aspect of the isolation they’d been enduring – and has continued to be an awful predicament for anyone who may have lost a loved one during the pandemic, has been the inability to grieve normally.

“We have our friendly volunteer phone callers; also our own workers are regularly calling clients”, Cheryl said at the time, but for those seniors who could use some emotional support or would like to be added to Gwen Secter’s food delivery program, the JCFS welcomes your call -a nd many more calls requesting support have come in since then.

That was only three months into the pandemic in what, in hindsight, seems like a relatively safe period – in comparison with the past two months, which have seen COVID rage almost without control no matter what restrictions the province might have imposed (or at least attempt to impose).

2 unsung heroes at Gwen Secter:
Galina Melenevska – food service manager
Cathy Koltowski – cook

And, while JCFS was attending to – and has been continuing to attend to the psychological needs of individuals who were particularly hard hit by the isolation caused by the pandemic, Gwen Secter’s two marvelous cooks, Galina Melenevska and Cathy Koltowski, have been steadily increasing the number of meals that they have been turning out – not only for isolated seniors in our community, but for others who were anxious to receive regular cooked meals for a variety of reasons.
Here’s what I wrote in June about how Gwen Secter had stepped into the breach left when Meals on Wheels stopped taking new clients at the end of March due to the huge increase in requests for that service as a result of the first province-wide lockdown, which was imposed March 14: “Gwen Secter has gone from producing 60 meals the week of March 30-April 3 to 286 meals for 73 different individuals in late May. This past week, according to Becky Chisick, Executive Director of the Gwen Secter Centre, 340 meals went out to seniors.”

In our July 10 issue I reported that Gwen Secter was now up to delivering 400 meals a week. As well, in conjunction with JCFS, Gwen Secter had just launched a new initiative: “The Medical Transportation for Seniors Hotline”. In that issue I wrote: “According to Becky Chisick, ‘This program is available for seniors & those with limited mobility. Call the hotline at 204-899-1696 and we will arrange safe one on one, door to door transportation to medical appointments for a subsidized rate.’

In our September issue I reported on the hiring of Danielle Tabacznik to fill the position of “Senior Concierge” at JCFS. Danielle described her duties this way: “I’ll be reaching out to seniors in the Jewish community who may or may not be isolated and who may not be connected to services. I’ll be checking in with them to make sure they’re doing okay…to see whether they do need referrals to services. I’ll also be asking them whether they’re feeling isolated, what programs or services might help them.”

The months of November and December, however, have seen a horrendous increase in the daily number of COVID cases being reported – not just here in Manitoba, but it seems throughout the globe as well (with few exceptions). And, although I’ve been in fairly regular contact with Becky Chisick, it’s been some time since I had asked her how many meals the Gwen Secter kitchen was now turning out.
When I spoke with Becky on Tuesday, December 15, she told me that Galia and Cathy (who now have a part-time assistant to help them) had turned out an astounding 606 meals the previous week. So – in nine short months, the Gwen Secter kitchen has gone from producing 60 meals a week for delivery to over 600 meals a week!

I suppose it’s easy to get distracted by the numbers: Gwen Secter now producing over 600 meals a week for delivery; 195 additional cases for JCFS. But let’s remember: Those numbers represent members of our community who are most in need of assistance. We’re extremely fortunate that our Jewish community has developed a sophisticated infrastructure capable of meeting the needs of those less fortunate – and that the organizations primarily tasked with funding the organizations that are attending to the needs of those most in need of help have also risen to the challenge, especially the Jewish Foundation and the Jewish Federation – together with so many members of our community who have stepped up with increased financial support.

Given that we’re nearing the end of 2020, however, I thought it appropriate to speak with someone who has found himself coordinating a very important component of our community’s response to the COVID pandemic: Al Bennaroch, Executive Director of Jewish Child and Family Service.
Al took some time from his very busy schedule to discuss the pressures he’s witnessed in his job since the end of March – and how JCFS has been handling the increased workload that’s come with having to attend to the terrible psychological toll that COVID has exacted on so many of us.

I said to Al that the last time I had spoken with him was in the spring. I wondered whether there “has been much of an increase in JCFS’s client load?”
He responded: “It depends on the program.” As we were talking, he said he was going to run a program on his computer to give some comparative figures.
“Let’s go back to April 1st,” he said. “I’ll run it from April 1st to today (Dec. 18) and we’ll take a look at what our caseload numbers look like in terms of new intakes.”
After running the program Al offered the following information: “We’ve had 195 new cases in all areas. Typically we might see on average five new cases a month. (The 195 new cases represent an average of over 20 new cases a month.) “Most of those have been in areas that require emotional support.
“Our counselling program, for example, has seen 45 new cases. We’ve seen 33 older adult new cases…nine Holocaust survivors”- who weren’t previously clients, have been added to JCFS’s client list…Addictions – we’ve had four new cases.
“Our aging mental health program – which is seniors living with a mental health issue – we’ve had six new cases in that area.”
“We’ve had seven people who have approached us for financial assistance,” Al noted, but then he added this observation: “My counterparts across the country (in other Jewish family service agencies) have not seen a huge increase in requests for financial support – other than the homeless situation in Toronto. They have a big Jewish homeless situation.
“I think that our federal government has done just enough – with programs like CERB, that have been enough to tide people over.
“A lot of American agencies are saying that they have seen an increase (in requests for financial assistance).” Al suggested that’s a reflection of the different American political system.
“Our employment support program has seen 25 new cases – that’s for newcomers mostly, although it also includes some people who have been laid off during the pandemic,” he noted.
There are also newcomers to the city – who have been continuing to arrive (even during the pandemic – something we noted in our Dec. 9 issue when we quoted Elaine Goldstine, CEO of the Jewish Federation, as saying that 27 new families had arrived in Winnipeg since the start of the pandemic).

I turned the subject to the high number of deaths that we’ve been witnessing in the Jewish community, especially in the past two months – as well as the community at large. While certainly a significant number of deaths are attributable to COVID (11 at the Simkin Centre, for instance, although one of those deaths occurred in a hospital, not in the centre itself), looking at Chesed Shel Emes’s database, there have already been 146 deaths as of the beginning of January – and not all Jews who pass away are taken to Chesed Shel Emes.
I wondered whether social isolation has been a contributing factor in some of those deaths, especially in personal care homes such as the Simkin Centre.
While Al suggested that the analysis hasn’t been done yet as to whether depression resulting from isolation has been a significant factor in the number of deaths, he did say that “We’ve been working with Simkin. We’re going to offer supports to families that have lost someone at Simkin due to COVID. We want to see whether they want to avail themselves of it.”

Al added that one of the responsibilities of JCFS is to offer help to the entire community, including other Jewish agencies. “That could mean supporting the staff of organizations that are stressed at this time.”
On that point I wondered whether JCFS still has a full complement of staff.
“We’ve had to reduce the hours of some people…there was a fledgling executive assistant – she was a student. We laid her off; she was fine with that.
“Essentially we’ve been ramping up some of our staff” (including the senior concierge position referenced earlier.)
“A lot of our older adult cases have come to us through the senior concierge position,” Al explained.
He noted, as well, that plans are afoot to send students into the community in January, wearing full Personal Protective Equipment, to help train seniors in the use of iPads. “We just put out an order for an additional 10-15 iPads that we’re going to get out into the community,” Al said.

“I have a plan where we can expand our volunteer coordination components so that we can take on more volunteers and perform more outreach to people,” Al observed.
I asked how many phone caller volunteers there are right now?
“Right now I think we have 15-17 active phone caller volunteers,” Al answered. “If that’s something we can expand beyond the walls of JCFS clientele – I’m going to explore that. In this day and age phone calls are the best we can do – until we can reinstate face to face visits.
“Of course, we’re prioritizing like we did in the spring,” Al continued. “We’re prioritizing the most vulnerable, the most at risk. Those are: the elderly, clients living with mental health issues, and clients living with addiction issues.”
Speaking of addiction issues, Al noted that “we’re no different than the rest of the world. We’re seeing a rise in opiate use – because that’s the drug that’s available. We’re seeing a rise in alcohol use.
“Anecdotally, we’re seeing a rise in domestic violence…A lot of other Jewish communities, for instance Hamilton, have seen a sharp rise in domestic violence – directly proportional to the degree of lockdown… We’re seeing more tensions rising with parenting issues,” he also observed.

Something else that I suggested to Al I had found when I wrote my article in June about how JCFS was helping various members of the community was that some of the individuals with whom I spoke back then might be described as being “on the periphery of the community”. Some of them had recently moved back to Winnipeg after being away for years, others had never really been involved much with the Jewish community, per se. I said that, while each of the individuals with whom I spoke back then was quite appreciative of the assistance rendered by JCFS, I wondered whether it was Al’s impression that more individuals who might also be considered on the periphery of the community had been availing themselves of the various forms of assistance rendered by JCFS?
Al responded that “the Jewish Federation has a pretty robust data base. Unlike a city like Toronto – it’s hard to hide in Winnipeg if you’re Jewish – someone knows someone who knows someone.
“Look, as of today we have 2262 cases at JCFS. We’re looking at 5900 people altogether. We’re talking 40% of our community that somehow gets impacted by our work. If we’re helping mum and dad, and they have three kids at home, the kids are being impacted by the help.”

I asked about newcomers to our community, saying that many of them wouldn’t have the family support networks that long-established members of our community would have – that could provide both financial and emotional support. I wondered whether JCFS had seen any sort of an increase in requests for assistance from newcomers as a result?
“I don’t know,” Al answered. “I’d have to dig deeper in the statistics.”
“Are they aware of the services you provide?” I asked.
“Oh yes. We have ramped up outreach to clients in every area, including our newcomer area.

He added this observation: “The pandemic has created new problems, but the old problems don’t go away either.
“But, the beauty of our community is that we’ve received many calls from people saying: ‘I’m really worried about so and so. Can you do anything to help?’ And we reach out to those people.
“Sure, there are some people who fall through the cracks, but our goal is to catch as many of them as we can before they fall too far.”

“Is it predominantly seniors we’re talking about here?” I asked.
“So far, yes,” Al said. “When I look at our numbers our highest areas of growth have been in counseling – but that’s open to all members of the community. But our senior program has had 33 new cases since April.”
Yet, other areas within JCFS’s mandate have commanded more attention as well. For instance, Al noted that “we had our clients in the mental health program not attending doctor’s appointments. We were trying to get to the bottom of why. The theme that kept running through was ‘We’re too anxious to take the bus – even with precautions’. So, they were actually avoiding doctors’ appointments and, in turn, getting bloodwork done, getting new prescriptions – which, in turn, was further destabilizing.
“So, we were able to get some money through a directed gift through the (Jewish) Foundation to cover off on cab rides for people to get to their appointments.”
“If there’s a will, there’s a way, and we want to get people through these challenging times and get them the service that they require.”

Finally, I asked whether there’s anything new to report on finding a second location for JCFS – a project which has been ongoing for more than a year. While Al did say that they’re “continuing to press forward on feasibility and costs,” there won’t likely be anything more to report on the subject until the spring.”

If you would like to contact either JCFS or the Gwen Secter Centre to find out more about help they are able to provide, the JCFS phone number is 204-477-7430, while the Gwen Secter Centre’s phone number is 204-339-1701.

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