by Ozzie Nogg
Over the past weeks, we have focused on three of the four pillars of Jewish Family Service — caring, compassion and connection. In this issue we discuss the agency’s fourth pillar — commitment — with Karen Gustafson, Jewish Family Service Executive Director:
Karen, would you please name the team members who work with you at JFS.
Our full-time staff includes Melissa Whetzal, Assistant to the Director; Teresa Drelicharz, JFS Mental Health Therapist; and Sandy Nogg, JFS Assistance Coordinator. Our JFS part-time staff is made up of Jan McCarthy, Coordinator of the Yachad Program; Mark Kazor, Assistant Coordinator for Yachad; and Sally Kaplan and Nate Bock, both of whom are part-time therapists. Melissa has been with the agency for two years, and others of us have worked at Jewish Family Service for 13 or 14 years. I’m proud to say that we’re a very stable and happy staff, all licensed professionals, and fully committed to providing the services that individuals, couples and families need when facing challenges in their lives.
What is your key to success at JFS?
First and foremost, it’s essential to have the right people in place to do the work — and we have the best group possible. Next is our ability to work together harmoniously. Each of our positions can be stressful at times, so we need to be able to rely on each other for support and encouragement. A few years ago at Hanukkah, I gave each staff member a pin that looks like a jig-saw puzzle piece to show that we all need to fit together to make the Jewish Family Service picture complete. And finally, I think we’re successful because each of us loves what we do. Coming to work every day at JFS is a pleasure.
Today you’re JFS Executive Director, but you started in the agency as a therapist. Is that role still part of your job description?
Yes. I carry a smaller caseload than our other full-time therapists because of my administrative duties, but I feel I’m a better administrator because of it. I enjoy the variety of seeing a client, then writing a grant, then working on an employee evaluation or planning for a parenting class. By wearing different hats, I’m able to help provide income to the agency and stay current with what my colleagues are doing. Some days, when I try to juggle so many different things, it can get a little crazy. But I love it.
Is there a place for volunteers at Jewish Family Service?
That’s one of those “Yes, but…” questions. We constantly struggle to let people know the work JFS staff does for the less fortunate in the community — and enlist their volunteer aid — but since our clients often prefer to remain anonymous, it’s not easy to mesh the need for client confidentiality with volunteer help. During the High Holidays, Hanukkah and Passover, Jewish Family Service volunteers do buy and deliver food to those who will be alone for the holidays, and that works out well. But in many cases, people are embarrassed to find themselves on the ‘receiving’ end. If someone can receive assistance from their own community — but at the same time ‘save face’ so to speak — then that’s what we aim to do. Our language at JFS focuses on how to set appropriate boundaries for our clients in order to maintain their confidentiality. Some people may think we go overboard, but if our sensitivity allows someone to walk in our door without feeling ashamed, then every other decision we’ve made is worth it.
Does JFS still facilitate adoptions?
We’re still licensed by the State of Nebraska as a Nebraska Child and Placement Agency, but we no longer have children relinquished into our care. We currently offer families their required Domestic or International Home Study court report; Post-Placement visits and report; Home Study updates, if they are expired; and Adoption Searches for families who adopted their child through Jewish Family Service. We’re affiliated with the Nebraska Adoption Agencies Association (NAAA), and one of our staff is the current Past-President of the Association. Adoption can be a complex process, and our professional staff is skilled in acting as a liaison and personal representative for families who call our office.
If you could talk, personally, to each member of the Omaha Jewish community and share something with them about JFS and its work, what would that be?
There are so many things. I would remind everyone that for over a century, Jewish Family Service of Omaha has provided programs that support individuals and families in the Jewish community, without regard for a client’s ability to pay. Every day, the JFS staff responds to the personal crises and challenges faced by people of all ages — kids-at-risk, the chronically ill, the unemployed and those in need of mental health counseling — with or without insurance. I would want everyone to know that the agency provides emergency financial assistance to qualifying individuals and families who, through an unexpected crisis, need help with rent, medications or food — and that the JFS Crisis Intervention Team is available for community members confronted with tragedy or sudden difficulties. I would tell people that JFS maintains a Food Pantry which is available to Jewish community members to help supplement their current food expenses so they don’t go hungry, and that we deliver food baskets during the High Holidays and gifts for children during Hanukkah. I would make sure everyone knew that JFS offers Family Life Education Classes for parents and teachers to help families meet the challenges of bullying, drug prevention and sexual behaviors. I’d point out that through Yachad, we bring programming to our adult population with developmental disabilities that lets them gain independence and participate fully in the life of the Jewish community. With all that said, the overriding goal of JFS is to restore dignity, hope and meaning to people’s lives, to participate in Tikkun Olam — to help repair the world through acts of lovingkindness that reflect the caring, compassion and connection we feel towards this community. I can honestly say that we are committed to that goal every day.
When you become a Friend of Jewish Family Service, you demonstrate your commitment to support the agency’s mission to bring hope and help to children and adults in our community who face personal challenges. Please join our efforts. Our community grows stronger when we reach out to others. To learn how you can become a Friend of Jewish Family Service and support the agency’s work, call 402.330.2024.