Family agency celebrates 75 years as local ‘lifeline’

Family agency celebrates 75 years as local ‘lifeline’

In the last few years of her life, Helen Offner found herself lonely and struggling and without any family to provide support.

“After she contacted Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County,” said Regie Roth, the agency’s special events coordinator, “Offner got much more than the counseling sessions she signed up for. The social workers at JFCS became her family and often undertook duties that went well beyond what was required of them.”

“I first met Helen in January of 2003,” said JFCS clinical director Wendy Cacacie. “She was an elderly woman, wheelchair-bound as a result of physical disabilities. She had no family, no children, never married. This agency was her emergency contact, her extended family.”

Offner lived in a tiny row house in Trenton, which her parents had purchased in the 1930s through money from the Hebrew Free Loan Society.

“During the five years we knew Helen, we helped her to live independently and stay in her own home. This was her precious wish,” said Cacacie.

“Throughout the years, JFCS helped Helen by providing meals-on-wheels, counseling, and, most importantly, ongoing, reassuring visits. Helen was alone and we were her family,” said Cacacie. “I would call her in between visits and we were always there to provide reassurance, support, and hope so she could hold on a little longer.”

In her earlier years Offner was a capable secretary for the State of New Jersey, said Cacacie. When she turned to JFCS, “she was feisty and fiercely wanted to be independent. She would position her wheelchair between two tables that contained her files and phone and from there she would manage her finances and pay her own bills,” said Cacacie.

And despite her challenges, Offner wanted to “pay it forward” and help others. She was a leader in her neighborhood association, active in the Golden Agers, and always checked in on her neighbors and friends.

Eventually, a few months before she died in 2008 at the age of 90, Offner did need to move out of her home. JFCS arranged for her to live her final months at Greenwood House, the Jewish nursing home in Ewing.

Offner clearly regarded JFCS as family; upon her death she left a financial donation to the agency so it could continue to help others.

“JFCS’ annual galas have always focused on a specific honoree,” said Roth. But this year’s Diamond Jubilee Gala — to be held Feb. 25 at the Westin Princeton — will honor the agency itself in recognition of the thousands of people — like Helen — it has touched in its 75 years.

“In 1937 a small group of women realized the need for a community lifeline — a confidential and safe place for families to get help,” said Roth. “They had the vision that it was possible for one family to help another, and 75 years later, JFCS continues the tradition of ‘families helping families.’

“Today, we help about 5,000 people each year, through very difficult times. People just like Helen,” said Roth. “The Diamond Jubilee Gala is a celebration of lives that were better lived because of the services we provide. Services like counseling for families, individuals, and children; opportunities for seniors to meet and make friends at our weekly Kosher Cafe; delivering Kosher Meals-on-Wheels for the homebound; offering toys and gift cards for disadvantaged children; providing food vouchers and food from the Kosher Food Pantry to everyone in the community who needs it, regardless of race or religion,” said Roth.

The Diamond Jubilee Gala, she said, “is a tribute to JFCS’s vision and a celebration of families helping families now and into the future,” said Roth.

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