By Rozi Rice
I could never have anticipated that the events of Monday, March 16, 2020 – a day that began like any other – would have the impact on my life that they did. In an early morning email from Jewish Community Service’s Executive Director, my colleagues and I learned that our building would be closing indefinitely and we would begin providing our services remotely. As a volunteer coordinator managing volunteer-escorted transportation and other in-person services for clients of JCS, I scrambled to notify each person giving and receiving those services. Then I contacted colleagues working on events and cooperative programs to preface that they’d receive email cancellations and to suggest they begin alternative planning. I haphazardly grabbed files, notebooks, some personal items, and walked out to the parking lot, somewhat dazed.
It quickly became apparent that any of the programs that Volunteer Services provided to clients that involved personal contact would all be suspended.
My concern began to focus on the JCS Group Homes for adults with disabilities. One of the most important programs that I work on is Connections, which offers social programs for adults with disabilities who live in the nine JCS group homes. In the past, I have arranged volunteer visits to the homes, hosted holiday parties with agency partners, provided donated tickets to baseball and football games and the theater. In an instant, these activities, as well as the jobs and programs that some residents have and enjoy, were all cancelled as our residents became quarantined to their homes for their own protection. Now, what?
We pivoted, adapted, and got busy. The JCS wheels started turning and our new creative model of remote programming began in full.
We launched the Friendly Caller program, matching compatible volunteers with residents of the group homes to combat isolation and loneliness by connecting them with a new reassuring friend. The benefits are for the participant and the volunteer for a friendly social outlet.
The next challenge was to plan for future Connections holiday parties without being together in the same space. In the past, these parties consisted of refreshments, a party room with a DJ, entertainment, dancing, Bingo, and other games. Our residents looked forward to these gatherings all year long as they provided a lot of fun and an opportunity to socialize with JCS staff, their Connections friends, and volunteers. We wondered if we could provide the same party atmosphere virtually. We soon answered our own question – we could and we did.
The first party was for Hanukkah. On December 16, more then 70 JCS staff, Connections volunteers, family, and friends joined together for an evening on Zoom. We danced to popular music played by a DJ who entertained us, enjoyed a scavenger hunt, games, props, and an all-around great time was had by everyone. The joy was palpable, and it was heartwarming to see the celebration from everyone’s home and to see them enjoying themselves in a new way.
Next up for Connections was Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC) Mitzvah Week, a week filled with service opportunities and learning experiences for the community. Thanks to JCS staff and volunteers, the week culminated with a Pizza & Bingo Party on Christmas Day for the JCS Group Homes. The Bingo cards and markers were distributed to the group homes and the pizza delivery was ordered for each home. Our wonderful volunteers, the Hyunga family, provided a great afternoon of Bingo, a choreographed sing-along, and a hat party.
As the vaccine rolls out across the country and life slowly but surely returns to normality, we will continue the old model of engagement through our Connections program but will also retain some of the new initiatives. JCS’ commitment to inclusive programming, jobs, and education for adults with disabilities is a priority and is especially meaningful to me.
I appreciate the inclusive response from the community to integrate the residents of our group homes into their programs. Currently, perhaps more than ever, adults with disabilities have the same needs as all of us. When we begin to emerge from our homes and gradually return to our former lives, we need to come together. My hope is that we will resume visits with our families, travel, socialize with our friends, and be more inclusive and tolerant of everyone for the sake of our physical and mental health. There is no reason not to. If you or someone you know would like to volunteer with or might benefit from our Connections program, contact Rozi Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-843-7325.
Rozi Rice is a Volunteer Coordinator at Jewish Community Services
JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.