Atlanta’s PAL program, a mentoring program operated by Jewish Family & Career Services, is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a big party Sunday, Feb. 28, at Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs.
The Atlanta area’s only Jewish Big Brother/Big Sister program has touched the lives of hundreds of children, families and volunteers over the years and formed close relationships that in some cases have lasted decades.
PAL was started in 1986 by Archie Solomon and Ellen Moore, the first PAL program manager. According to his widow, Kaethe, Archie was involved in a Big Brother/Big Sister program in Cleveland. When the Solomons moved to Atlanta, he found a need for a similar program and decided to start one.
“Ellen Moore was a social worker here at JF&CS, and she was seeing a lot of families who were going through divorces,” said Carly Sonenshine, the PAL program manager. “The parents were coming in for counseling, saying that their children are really in need of additional support. They said that this is a really difficult time, and if they had a special person of their own outside of the family but supporting the family at the same time and supporting their child, giving them that one-on-one attention, how much they would benefit from that.”
So the Solomons and Moore started PAL with the support of JF&CS. Through about 500 PAL matches over the years, about 1,500 people have been helped by PAL, including the children (little PALs), the PAL parents and the volunteers (big PALs).
The program name originally was an acronym.
“It actually used to stand for People Are Loving. About five years ago, they got away from the acronym and just started calling it the PAL program, like a pal, a friend,” Sonenshine said.
Somewhere in its history PAL hit a period of decline, she said, and the program manager position changed from full time to part time. But four years ago the program went back to having a full-time clinician, and PAL has seen strong growth from 14 to 45 active matches in that time. The program has a goal of 55 matches by the end of 2016.
“We are really working hard to be out in the community, teaching people about the PAL program and about the benefits of mentorship,” Sonenshine said. “We’re really getting out there with our name and having wonderful advocates of the program to share the wonderful work that we do and making sure that the families who need us know that we are here.”
To be a big PAL, a volunteer must be 21 or older, be a Georgia resident, have a driver’s license, and be Jewish. You must commit to the program for a minimum of one year, during which you meet with your little PAL at least twice a month and connect with weekly phone calls.
Matching big and little PALs is a long process. A volunteer must pass a background check, a drug screening, interviews and other vetting. A family who would like a child to be in the program has an intake meeting, an interview with the child and family, and a home visit.
PALs are matched based on hobbies, backgrounds, social needs, interests and preferences. All matches are the same sex.
“The reality is that every child can benefit from a mentor. Nine out of 10 kids in the United States are growing up without a mentor,” Sonenshine said.
PAL serves a diverse range of family situations. Little PALs are the children of parents who are single because of divorce, death of a spouse or choice. PAL also serves LGBTQ families, military families, children raised by guardians other than their biological parents, and, more recently, siblings of children with developmental disabilities. The child with a developmental disability is referred to the Friendship Circle, and the sibling gets a big PAL, giving that child the attention he or she needs.
Little PALs range in age from 5 to 17. Children graduate from the program when they turn 18, but the typical PAL match does not end at that point, Sonenshine said. “I know people who tell me that they are still in touch with their PALs literally 30, 25 and 20 years later. They are in each other’s weddings and at each other’s break fasts. They are celebrating simchas together because they have become such a huge part of each other’s lives.”
Elissa Fladell and her little PAL graduated from the program over 10 years ago, but they remain close friends, talking daily and seeing each other often.
For Fladell, PAL has been rewarding.
“I got to watch her grow up,” Fladell said. “I got to bring something to her that she did not get from anyone else. For me, as an adult, she has become part of my family. Not only have we gotten to give to her, but she has given to us. She is there for my children to be their mentor. She’s someone that they can go to that they trust when they don’t want to come to me or their father. We’ve almost come full circle in that regard. She really is part of our family. She adds to the dynamic of our whole family.”
Fladell highly recommends PAL to others.
“It’s a very special program, and it touches lives, not only of children, which is some of the most important work to be done, but it gives back to the parents that need that in their lives for their children to give them that sense of peace,” she said. “As a big PAL, to me it’s about what I get from it and not what I give to her. She gives so much back to me and my family. I really think that it is a program that is not only rewarding to those that are touched by it, but everybody that those people will then touch.”
Marc Alexander started as a big PAL in the mid-1990s and served on the JF&CS board for a number of years. Alexander said the program is an important service for the community.
“I think it gives the little PALs a great outlet to have someone other than a parent to talk about issues and things that are coming up in their life,” he said. “I think it’s great to have someone help out in the different struggles they might be having. The biggest reward is of the big PAL; it gives them the opportunity to reflect on what they had. Being a big PAL is an opportunity to put life in balance a little bit. To take a step back and make an impact on the younger PAL’s life is extremely rewarding. To me, the reward is making an impact on his life, which comes right back to you.”
Alexander and his little PAL liked to do outdoor activities such as camping, river rafting and attending sporting events. His little PAL has a brother who was also in the PAL program. The four of them were friendly and did a lot of activities together.
The sibling’s big PAL is Michael Londe, who met his wife, Susan, through PAL.
“We started dating, and he had been a PAL for years. It’s kind of funny that it’s hit home in several different ways,” Susan said.
Susan remains close to her little PAL eight years after they graduated from the program. Their relationship has lasted 20 years even though her little PAL now lives out of state.
“She’s awesome,” Susan said. “From the beginning, our personalities could not have been better matched. We both loved to do crafty things and bake. We’ve always loved children.”
Susan feels that her little PAL is a part of her family, and they have been through a lot together.
“I love that I have my little PAL in my life,” she said. “She was with me when I went through my dating of my husband and got to know him. She’s watched me have both of my children. She baby-sat for them even. She’s gone on family trips with us. It felt really good to be able to be a role model for somebody, especially at such a young age, when I was probably the one who needed a role model. We taught each other a lot of things.”
JF&CS doesn’t charge anything for program participants and encourages free and low-cost activities for PALs to do together. The program also sponsors monthly activities and offers resources to PALs so participation will not be a financial burden.
Other services JF&CS offers to families in the program include financial assistance, counseling, referrals and access to information on overnight Jewish camping.
The 30th anniversary party will bring about 200 people together for pizza, cookies and other kosher snacks, music from a Jewish band called Smothered and Covered, a photo booth, games, and other activities for children of all ages. A ceremony will honor Kaethe Solomon and Ellen Moore.
“I’m delighted that the program has remained so dynamic, and my husband would love to have seen this 30th anniversary,” Solomon said. “He would have been very proud of it.”
What: PAL 30th anniversary
Where: Congregation B’nai Torah, 700 Mount Vernon Highway, Sandy Springs
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28
Admission: Free, with walk-ins welcome; yourtoolsforliving.org/pal-celebration