Bring a smile, leave a smile.” Reduced to six words, this is the mission of an all-volunteer group seeking to brighten the lives of shut-ins and residents of assisted-living facilities in Monroe Township.
The brainchild of Jerry Gordon of Monroe, a member of the congregation at Chabad House of Monroe, the Smile Corps was organized about six months ago with the help of Rabbi Yehuda Spritzer.
Today, members of the group — about 12 in all — make approximately two visits a week, mainly to seniors in need of social contact and intellectual stimulation. There is no charge for the service.
“More Jewish seniors live in Monroe than any other municipality in Middlesex County, which we know from the federation’s own population study,” Gordon said, referring to a survey conducted for the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County in 2009 by demographer Ira M. Sheskin.
While the majority of seniors visited are Jewish, volunteers will help facilitate visits to individuals of any faith.
Many of the target “clients” of the young organization have little or no contact with other human beings. Their principal need is socialization, said Gordon.
He noted that his groundwork for the Smile Corps included meetings with Spritzer, because “Chabad does a lot of outreach,” as well as with officials of the Monroe senior services department and administrators and residents at its assisted-living facilities. All were supportive, he said.
Spritzer said that the Smile Corps is being run on a “very small budget.” Any funding that is needed must come from contributions. Everyone associated with the group is a volunteer. And when flyers were made up to help recruit volunteers, the printing was donated.
Even its website, www.smilecorps.net, reflects how giving people can be, said Spritzer. “When we did a search, it turned out the domain name was already taken,” the rabbi explained. “We approached the owner in San Diego; he was not utilizing the site and generously turned the name over to us.”
Gordon said that Smile Corps is always looking for new volunteers, people who can spend one hour a month or more to make these visits. Where possible, visitors will be matched with people of similar background and interests.
Often, the program benefits the volunteer as much as the person being visited. Gordon told of one man he visited who virtually refused to communicate or admit that he needed any help. Then Gordon found out that he had been a hazan in Poland many years before. “On a subsequent visit, I brought some Yiddish music CDs with me, and he began to sing along,” said Gordon. Other residents heard the melodies, and eventually about 20 people came together, listening, singing, and reminiscing.
“It gave me a great sense of accomplishment and was one of the most rewarding moments I have had since the program began,” Gordon said.
Spritzer said that all volunteers go through an orientation program before venturing out into the community. “We explain that our function is to provide friendly conversation, maybe play a game of chess or discuss the news of the day. There are other organizations and services that provide shopping assistance or a ride to a shul or a doctor. Of course, the Smile Corps volunteer can suggest how a homebound individual may access these forms of help.”
Spritzer also said volunteers are taught to deflect situations where they are asked for financial aid, medical advice, or emotional counseling. “If this occurs, the volunteer is instructed to tell me or Jerry Gordon, and we will refer the information to the appropriate party.”
At present, the rabbi said, one of the most limiting factors in providing more Smile Corps visits is that people are unaware of the group or reluctant to reach out because of timidity or embarrassment; some don’t recognize that they need support. “Many of our referrals come from family members or friends of the people who will receive the visit.”
To request a visit or become a volunteer, contact Gordon at 609-656-3338 or Chabad House at 609-409-1000 or visit www.smilecorps.net.