By R.M. Grossblatt
Erin Barbee, who became the executive director at Berman Commons in August, wasn’t looking for a new position. But when a recruiter from Jewish Home Life Communities approached Barbee, the executive director at a Sunrise facility for 11 years, her ears perked up.
“I saw the opportunity to work at a faith-based organization that was also nonprofit … and felt like home,” she said.
Born and raised in Charlotte, Barbee, 32, received a degree in sociology and gerontology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
As a little girl, while she sat on her grandfather’s lap, he would tell her she had an old soul. At 14, her mother pushed her to volunteer at a senior home. “I went there kicking and screaming but came out knowing that I wanted to do this the rest of my life,” Barbee said.
The only other job she tried was a radio DJ working the night shift. When she fell asleep at the microphone, she quit to pursue her passion working with the elderly.
“Coming into this organization feels like a close-knit family,” Barbee said in her office, where tranquil, soft jazz plays. But she doesn’t stay there long. “I have to walk around … get hugs and listen to the residents’ concerns.”
Barbee was hired to run Berman Commons after the JHLC facility in Dunwoody had some problems in its first 15 months like many new endeavors, “Jewish or not,” Barbee said.
Building on the work of her predecessor, she re-enforces policies and procedures. She believes in taking action and has made changes at the home. They include adjusting staff to align with residents’ needs, enhancing programming, especially in memory care, and concentrating on prevention, such as precautions to prevent falls.
She encourages every staff person, including nurses, housekeepers and waiters, to be aware of details and changes in the needs of residents. She also believes in close communication with family members.
High on her list of concerns is nutrition, including good kosher food.
Many of the elderly residents and their families complained about the food initially, and the original chef left within a few months of the opening in the spring of 2015.
While the facility maintains kosher meat and dairy kitchens under the supervision of Fred Glusman, the Atlanta Kosher Commission stopped certifying the food service as kosher in September because of what JHLC officials said was the difficulty of getting an AKC mashgiach for the necessary schedule.
“The residents deserve good nutrition in a healthy, presentable way,” Barbee said.
She said everyone is having fun introducing her to traditional Jewish food. “I’m still working my way up to gefilte fish.”
As the new executive director, Barbee encourages the staff to work together to help the 80 residents physically as well as socially and emotionally. She stressed that it’s important for the residents to stay independent as long as possible and maintain their dignity. “I want to keep them in this beautiful environment without feeling like they lost” their independence.
As part of JHLC, “we have a good model from the Breman Jewish Home, where the standards are excellent,” Barbee said. She and JHLC administrators from the Jewish Home, Zaban Tower, Cohen Home and Weinstein Hospice meet weekly to support one another.
Berman Commons has maintained a waiting list for apartments. A nurse makes assessments for prospective residents and family members inquiring about availability. Sometimes an elderly person can stay at home, Barbee said.
She’s open to advice and has access to many Jewish agencies, including Jewish Family & Career Services. “I just had to work here,” Barbee said. “The Jewish community does it right.”
Someone gave Barbee a Jewish children’s book, “My Jewish Year,” which, during the interview, she picked up and held close. “I cherish this,” she said. It helps her understand the Jewish holidays.
Although a Christian, Barbee said that she shares many of the same beliefs and values as the residents of Berman Commons.
While Barbee had some spiritual opportunities at Sunrise, she said that one of the attractions of Berman Commons is that “they bring in the whole Jewish lifestyle.”
Glusman leads educational classes and “meets the emotional needs” of many residents, Barbee said. In addition, volunteers such as Michael Rosenzweig, who leads a current events class, make a difference.
Residents are involved in programming. Terry Bassner, who moved to Berman four months ago, is the co-organizer for the Ambassador Program, which welcomes new residents. When she gave up her car, Bassner moved to Berman Commons.
“It’s a big adjustment, but I’m learning,” she said. Bassner appreciates the beauty of the place, the kind and helpful staff, including Barbee, and rides to places like the Marcus Jewish Community Center next door, where she works out and takes Zumba classes.
Barbee reaches out to all the residents and feels honored to be in the company of Holocaust survivors. “Until you sit next to someone who experienced it, you don’t get it,” she said. “So if I put a smile on that person’s face, I feel fulfilled.”
After work, Barbee is involved in projects such as Habitat for Humanity. She’s a movie buff who enjoys romantic comedies that require tissues. “And I love to laugh.”
Barbee, a young woman with an old soul, a passion for excellence in elderly care, a sense of humor and a joy for life, is adding to the beauty at Berman Commons. “I love what I do,” she said.