Ryan Goldstein knows how easy it is for everyone to get caught up in one’s own life. Volunteering, he reflects, “keeps you grounded. It’s a good reminder to oneself about what’s important in life.”
Goldstein is one of many Atlanta Jews who volunteer for Jewish Family & Career Services, a more than 100-year-old agency that provides a variety of counseling, career support and services for older adults, and various people in need. These volunteers contribute their time and energy to others, and according to those interviewed by the AJT, gain from the experience in return.
The 26-year-old Goldstein said he’s always enjoyed kids, so when his boss at Jeckil Promotions, Joel Libowsky, suggested he volunteer for the PAL program, he realized it was a natural for him. PAL is a part of the Tools for Families division and basically is a Big Brother Big Sister program for the Atlanta Jewish community. It offers one-on-one mentoring relationships for children who need extra support and time with a trusted adult.
Goldstein explained that the fact that his parents divorced when he was just 3 years old gave him “a different perspective on life than other people.” One result is that he is incredibly close to his two sisters. He was drawn to the PAL program thinking that he would work with children in similar situations. He was partnered with 10-year-old Blake, whose father had passed away.
“When I started, I thought he would want to know about me,” Goldstein said. “But instead, he just wants to talk. As a result, I’ve become a better listener.” Blake is in fifth grade and is “super smart. I feel I’m inadequate in terms of intellect when I’m with him. He’s passionate about learning and a real problem solver. I learn from him.”
The PAL Program requires two training sessions to prepare the adults for the volunteer experience with children, Goldstein said. That includes learning what to expect and the relationship with a child’s parent. Goldstein meets with Blake once or twice a month. “Usually we just go out to dinner or for ice cream. He talks about what he’s doing in school or at camp.”
According to Andrea Appel, JF&CS’s PAL coordinator, “Ryan dove head-first into his role with his little PAL, and they bonded instantly over fantasy and other activities. But his support of the program did not stop there. Ryan also aids in planning the PAL program’s annual fundraiser, Havinagala. Without dedicated volunteers like Ryan, the PAL program would not exist.”
Goldstein is one of the newer JF&CS volunteers, having started with the PAL program in 2018. Shelly Schwartzenfeld, on the other hand, has been a volunteer with JF&CS’ One Good Deed program for more than four years. Since 2006, One Good Deed has matched more than 400 older adults with community volunteers like Schwartzenfeld. The mission is to reduce loneliness and help older adults maintain their independence and remain in their own homes. Volunteers visit with their older adults for a minimum of two hours each time, and at least twice a month.
“One Good Deed could not impact the lives of the older adults we serve without the valuable time of volunteers like Shelly,” said Vivienne Kurland, One Good Deed program coordinator.
Schwartzenfeld, who had worked in occupational therapy and always liked geriatrics, was a natural fit for One Good Deed. She was connected with Frank and Eileen Seidman, the latter diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. “At first the idea was to be with Eileen and let Frank go out, but he wouldn’t leave her side,” Schwartzenfeld recalled. Eventually, the couple moved into The Cohen Home because Eileen needed more help.
Although One Good Deed was designed to help seniors live independently, Schwartzenfeld continued to volunteer when the couple moved, and even after Eileen passed away.
Schwartzenfeld visits with Seidman, takes him out and attends Seidman family dinners. “He texts me every day. He’s so positive; it makes you positive. He’s always hugging and looks at the bright side.”
The special relationship between Schwartzenfeld and Seidman is clear when speaking with Frank. “She is a sweetheart, and you can quote me. She is an angel.”
Seidman told the AJT, “She’s dependable and very thoughtful. I get text messages from Shelly every morning, saying ‘good morning,’ and every night, to say ‘sweet dreams.’ I love Shelly as much as my own daughters. She’s a good person to have as a friend. She’s not a Seidman, but she could very well be a Seidman. Shelly and I agree: it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.”
Some people broaden what they do professionally to include their volunteer work. That’s the case with Dr. Michael Chalef, who has been a volunteer dentist at The Ben Massell Dental Clinic dating back to his time at Emory University’s dental school. He’s also been on the board of the clinic for more than 20 years.
“Dr. Chalef embodies the true meaning of philanthropist,” said Keith Kirshner, managing director of the dental clinic. “He came to the clinic as a student, and when a former professor asked him to return as a practicing professional, he eagerly did. As with many colleagues at the clinic, he now volunteers and teaches dental students, yet he has chosen to give more and offers guidance on our executive committee, encourages others to support and get involved with JF&CS.”
Indeed, sometimes volunteering means doing the hard work of fundraising. That’s the volunteer role Chalef’s wife Ellen, an accountant, took on. “I’m comfortable around money. You call and ask people for money and they thank you for doing what you do,” she told the AJT. The goal of this year’s campaign is $1.5 million, she said, an increase from the previous year because “the needs are greater.”
According to Amanda La Kier, JF&CS chief development officer, “Ellen has been an incredible ambassador of JF&CS for many years through her board participation and leadership of the annual campaign. With over 100 conversations each year with donors, Ellen is a large part of the success of our campaign.”
Kirshner said that the Chalefs “are more than supporters. They are champions for what they believe in, and their energy is infectious.”