Clients, staff, parents, board members, and other supporters of JESPY House paid tribute Feb. 7 to Lynn Kucher, who was honored for more than 30 years of service to an organization that provides housing, recreation, and other options to adults with learning and developmental disabilities
Kucher, who stepped down at the end of 2015 and was succeeded by Dr. Ed Spauster, was lauded for leading JESPY through a period of rapid growth, adding an array of innovative programs, and, when JESPY became a state-accredited agency, handling the flood of new responsibilities that came with it.
“Picture a small village growing into a city and how things change along the way. The changes went on and on and on, and she absolutely was there all along the way to help oversee every inch of growth,” said Helene Myers, a founder of JESPY, speaking at a gala held in Kucher’s honor at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston.
Her son, Steven, who has lived at JESPY in South Orange for 30 years, called Kucher “my special friend.” His mother recalled how she and her husband would not have been able to move from South Orange to Florida without Kucher and JESPY.
“When [Steven] had an issue, he didn’t call his mother or father, even though we lived nearby. Instead, he would call Lynn,” Helene Myers said. “She was his personal counselor, his best friend, and he would always turn to her.”
Steven was one of the many clients who, after the plaques were presented and the speeches delivered, headed toward Kucher to offer a hug.
Kucher recalled her early days at JESPY, when she earned $4.32 per hour as a social worker and counselor.
“I always saw myself as someone who would work in a helping profession,” she said at the gala. “What I did not know early on was what I would get back. I have had a career that I am proud of and, with the help of the staff, have left the world a little better.”
(She also assured those at the gathering that her salary was a bit higher when she stepped down in December.)
Myers remembered hiring Kucher in 1979, just eight months after JESPY House was founded.
“She was very warm and outgoing. And she related extremely well to the clients, who are [still] very concerned and frightened at intake,” she said.
When it came time to hire a new executive director in 1985, said Myers, Kucher “was the most appropriate and qualified person. We needed someone who could manage and run the programs we had great dreams for.”
Under Kucher, JESPY grew to serve more than 200 clients, with a $5 million budget and a staff of 70. JESPY facilities expanded from one building, shared with a loan company, to nine.
Under her leadership, JESPY added vocational staff, including employment coaches, to help clients find and keep jobs; new independent living facilities; more counselors; and new departments, from recreation to health to clinical. JESPY now offers an array of programs, both residential and non-residential, as well as day programs for unemployed or underemployed clients. Independent living facilities are staffed with counselors who offer guidance in cooking and daily living skills and 24-hour support.
It is also state and federally accredited, and is an agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
When JESPY became state-accredited, Kucher handled not only the influx of state funding and new clients, but also the paperwork, state inspections, and evaluations that came with it.
“She kept the staff together,” said Myers. “She held meetings all the time to evaluate each initiative. She had to constantly keep in touch with different professionals. Everyone had her phone number and eventually her e-mail.”
According to many of the 250 people at the gala, Kucher was involved in every step in the organization’s evolution, and every client who came through the door.
“Any program that would benefit the clients, she was on board with,” said Tara Roberts, the agency’s out-client program supervisor. “She did every job. Lynn didn’t walk in and say, ‘Do this; do that.’ She did it all herself first so she knew a lot about our experiences, and I don’t think she’s given enough credit for that.”
Andrea Weisbard, a client since 1985, said, “She is awesome. She was there for me when my dad died. And I was in the hospital in December ’03, and Lynn was there.”
She recalled the sheepdog Kucher sometimes brought with her to JESPY. “I just loved that!” said Weisbard.
Maria Carroll, whose son Michael, 25, joined JESPY as a client four years ago, said she met Kucher — who, she said “was hands-on and so involved” — and fell in love with JESPY.
“It’s the care and concern she put into it,” said Carroll. “If there were ever any challenges, I always knew I could call her and she would take care of it.”
Kucher will stay on at least through the year as a special consultant.