Three years ago, when Eric Model’s mother was being treated at Prospect Heights Care Center in Hackensack over the High Holy Days, he realized that the elderly residents particularly appreciated visitors during a holiday. He also realized that the employees appreciated holiday time off.
The River Edge resident, who began visiting the facility as a volunteer that Christmas, then brought UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey into the mix.
Florence Grodzki enjoys a visit with Eva Salinas at the Prospect Heights Care Center.
Alice Blass, coordinator of the Get Connected initiative for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, credits Model with creating the group’s Christmas Day volunteer project last year.
Volunteer Debbie Zeiler does an arts and crafts project with Martha Micci, a resident at Prospect Heights Care Center.
"His ideas were really the engine behind the project," she said, noting that this year, some 40 people turned out on Dec. ‘5 to work as volunteers at Prospect Heights Care Center in Hackensack and CareOne in Teaneck.
According to Blass, Get Connected, a project of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council, acts as a matchmaker between community members’ interests and volunteer opportunities. On Dec. ‘5, she said, volunteers of all ages assisted with transport, helped in the kitchen, and entertained residents of the facilities they visited.
The feedback was immediate and positive, she said. "The facilities were thrilled to have visitors [who brought] tremendous energy, and the volunteers felt good about what they did."
Nor is volunteerism limited to this one day, said Blass. The group mobilizes community helpers for UJA-NNJ’s annual Mitzvah Day, and Get Connected supplies volunteers "as requested." For example, she said, they were recently asked to supply mah jongg players for a local facility.
"Christmas is a day off work when people can do something useful," said Blass. "It’s a nice way to spend your day off and make people happy."
Having participated for years in a B’nai B’rith initiative that relieved Christian workers at Pascack Valley Hospital on Christmas Day, Model, who brought his three young children to help out in Hackensack, said he would like to see Dec. ‘5 become a "mini-Mitzvah Day another day for community service.
"It feels especially Jewish," he said. "People are putting their best foot forward. It’s a nice fit with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam and is a good alternative to Chinese food and a movie," the "traditional" Jewish observance of the day, "and you feel pretty good about it."
Cresskill resident Ivan Salinas volunteered to play piano at Prospect Heights Care Center on Christmas Day, something he did last year as well. As president of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, the composer said he is no stranger to volunteerism and has performed at other senior facilities.
On this day, he said, he understood that his presence would enable Christian staffers to be home with their families. "It’s a worthy thing to do, " he said. "Music has a powerful healing ability," he said, "and you don’t know who you’re reaching. It’s an unconditional gift."
Accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter Eva, Salinas said he played a variety of pieces, from Christmas carols to standards by Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
Ringwood residents Jason and Jerilyn Okin and their miniature schnauzer Sasha spent the afternoon at CareOne, introducing their pet to residents and getting "a mixed reaction." Jason Okin, who also brought Sasha to a nursing home on Mitzvah Day, said, "Some people really love the dog."
The Okins, who were scheduled to be in Florida but suddenly found they had time on their hands, thought volunteering would be a good way to spend the day. "It feels good, and you can help others," said Jason Okin.
"Sasha is very sweet," said Jerilyn Okin, pointing out that more than five dogs accompanied volunteer families to the CareOne facility. The couple approached each room, asking if the residents "wanted a visit with a dog. Everyone said yes," noted Okin. "We spent a lot of time with an 83-year-old man from Poland. As he talked, he kept reaching out to Sasha. Another lady in a wheelchair asked if she could hold the dog. People lit up."
Jerilyn Okin noted that the visit served two purposes, freeing up some of the staff and providing company for "people who don’t have visitors. It doesn’t matter what day it was," she said. The dogs were happy too, she said. "They mingled in the hallways and were very playful," she noted.
Jewish Standard Contributing Editor Miriam Rinn, a resident of Cliffside Park, said she took advantage of the fact that she was going to spend the day in New York City to participate in a food delivery program there.
"I delivered food packages to the homebound for City Meals on Wheels," she explained, noting that she found out about the need for volunteers from an organizational newsletter.
"I had the day off, and they were offering the project," she said. "I had never done this before." Rinn said she was "struck by the vulnerability" of the people she visited and impressed by the number of people taking time out to help. "I was particularly struck by the large numbers of people who do this on a regular basis," she said.
Hackensack resident Warren Boroson, who showed up at Prospect Heights ready to assist, said "There were almost more volunteers than there were patients." Boroson, who helped bring coffee and "lavish desserts" to residents, said there was "competition" to help the people there, most of whom were in their 80s and 90s. "I saw an elderly lady and a child talking," he said. "They were both enchanted."
Why did so many people come to help? "The Jewish people are very generous," he said.