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Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County ramps up services amid COVID-19 crisis

Ann Arbor-based organization operates food pantry, provides crisis support and more

Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County volunteers are calling hundreds of isolated community members each week to check in and see if their needs are being met.
Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County volunteers are calling hundreds of isolated community members each week to check in and see if their needs are being met. (Pixabay)

ANN ARBOR – During normal times, Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County is busy providing community members with critical support in their daily lives, but COVID-19 has significantly changed how it operates.

With local agencies and food pantries suspending or limiting services due to the pandemic, Jewish Family Services staff said they are working overtime to help serve pre-existing clients and new clients who are in desperate need of resources.

“We have pretty much re-imagined our organization," said executive director Anya Abramzon. “We went from face-to-face, ‘let me hold your hand’ services to doing all that but remotely. We were in the office Friday, March 13 and we were up and running (the following Monday) from our homes. We did not close for one day.”

Abramzon explained that the organization’s protocols have changed due to the stay-at-home order. Its wide variety of services, including the WISE Comfort Line making calls to seniors, THRIVE mental health counseling, CARES caregiver program, refugee services and English as a Second Language program have all moved to virtual or telephone platforms.

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Due to this adjustment, Abramzon said that JFS’ services can now expand beyond Washtenaw County.

JFS’ food pantry, which feeds 7,000 community members annually, has moved to a 100% contact-free delivery service. The pantry offers halal, kosher, gluten-free and medically-tailored groceries and meals for those in need. Abramzon said local partner organizations have been critical in maintaining the crucial grocery delivery service to 350-400 households in the area, and JFS anticipates delivering meals to 200 households over the next month.

Food Gatherers, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels programs and the Washtenaw Office for Community and Economic Development have been “guiding our work as we’re trying to brave this new world of meal delivery,” said Abramzon.

How to get involved

Jewish Family Services is in need of volunteers for both its WISE Comfort Line and food pantry. WISE makes weekly calls to 400 isolated community members to check in and see if they are in need of critical services. Volunteers are trained with a set of questions to help navigate which resources to coordinate care as needs are identified.

“We’ve been finding that the people who are wiling to make those WISE Comfort Line calls and check in with other people, it ends up being quite an experience with volunteers as well as the people they are calling,” said director of business development Joanne Brownstein Jarvi. “It helps people on both ends.”

Volunteers who are considered low-risk for COVID-19 (under age 60, not immunocompromised or do not live with someone who is high risk) are needed to help with food delivery services. Responsibilities include ability to lift 25 lbs, loading and delivering grocery items and meals.

All volunteers must complete a background check and adhere to JFS’ confidentiality agreements and practices to guard the privacy and safety of its clients.

A recent call for 63 volunteers was fulfilled within 24 hours, said Brownstein Jarvi.

To sign up to volunteer, click here.

“We are immensely grateful," said Abramzon. “As hard as these past four weeks have been, and as disheartening as it is to see the numbers climb and the lives being taken, and the fear and the whole tragedy of this situation, we are just immensely grateful for the kindness, generosity, courage, incredible camaraderie that we’re seeing in the community -- whether it’s volunteers or partners or funders. We are grateful for knowing that we’re not standing alone, we’re working together, that every life matters and every person counts.”

“Jewish Family Services serves everybody and we’re constantly coming from a place of ‘Yes,’" added Brownstein Jarvi. “We’re like a one-stop shop for what you need. These wraparound services, this coordination of care is something we’ve been doing for a long time.”

List of JFS Ann Arbor services:

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.