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JFS is new volunteer hub for Union County
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JFS is new volunteer hub for Union County

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Retired career coach Melvyn Jacobsen was among the first volunteers to sign up for Senior Corps RSVP.
Retired career coach Melvyn Jacobsen was among the first volunteers to sign up for Senior Corps RSVP.

A retired career coach affectionately known as Coach Mel was looking for a way to volunteer with young adults. He wanted to put to good use his many years of experience. But finding the right organization was proving to be daunting.

Across town, the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless was looking for volunteers, but had not found an effective way to attract them.

But now Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey has launched Senior Corps RSVP, a new initiative that officially began July 1 that will connect people like Coach Mel, who has an office in the Elizabeth, with organizations like the Elizabeth Coalition for the homeless. In fact, Coach Mel — aka Melvyn Jacobsen, 75, of Roselle Park — was among the first volunteers to sign up, and he will be starting later this month.

The initiative was made possible by a federal grant of almost $80,000 from the Corporation for National and Community Service, which gave a total of more than $17,000,000 to 232 organizations in 41 states. RSVP was created to match volunteers 55 and over with organizations that need them. It focuses on specific areas of need: schools, disaster response initiatives, and veterans’ organizations. 

JFS will focus on education, healthy futures, and disaster relief services.

“Before now, we would get calls from people who wanted to volunteer, especially with children, but we had nothing to offer them,” said Heidi Pekarsky, director of marketing and grant development at JFS.

Volunteers can also be a critical component of keeping desperately needed programs running.

“Last year a nutrition program nearly closed for lack of volunteers,” said Nathalie Garcia, RSVP project coordinator and food program coordinator at JFS.

JFS has long had a corps of volunteers, working on such projects as the community garden, food pantry, and friends/advocates who help seniors with their finances. But the agency had to turn away requests from those who wanted to work with children, disaster response, and other agency food pantries and gardens. 

With this new grant, JFS executive director Tom Beck explained, “JFS will become the hub for volunteer programs not only for us but throughout the social services community in Union County. We’re already well connected with many community agencies that are part of the Jewish community and the overall community. This is an opportunity to expand into many areas.”

The grant both creates the structure and provides the funding to do it.

“Now we just need to bring in the volunteers,” said Pekarsky. 

The program is open to anyone wishing to volunteer who is over 55. JFS is forming an advisory board with representatives from a range of for-profit and nonprofit organizations on it who will help set the groundwork for spreading the word to synagogues, churches, and senior centers, as well as to corporations with volunteer projects, like PSE&G.

“As soon as organizations heard we were applying for this grant, they started reaching out to us,” said Beck.

Garcia has been making presentations to other agencies. 

“It’s professionalizing how we get volunteers,” said Pekarsky.

Eileen Leahy, director of external affairs for PSE&G, sits on the advisory board and lives in the county. “More than anything, we are doing this to bring resources back into the community. Having this program strengthens the community and the nonprofits that serve it,” she said in a phone interview.

With 25 years’ experience providing counseling to clients found through community organizations and area trade and high schools, including youths coming out of jail and drug programs, Jacobsen said he hopes RSVP will afford him “a chance to work with young people who need help with their careers, and finding a direction in life.”

“I think it’s an excellent idea that will help a lot of people,” he said. “We need more programs like this. Anything that helps people is a positive thing.”

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