|Westchester Jewish Community Services|
|Tuesday, 29 July 2008 16:42|
One County; Many, Many Programs
It has been 65 years since Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) was established with a small seed grant from the UJA-Federation. Its mission at the time seemed straightforward: To provide counseling for those early ‘pioneers’ in New York City’s northern suburbs.
Today WJCS provides a menu of over 70 different health and human service programs throughout Westchester County which itself has evolved into a complex, rapidly changing demographic mix of urban poverty, suburban wealth and everything in between. Its population of roughly one million includes both aging long-time residents and exploding numbers of newer, younger and poorer Hispanic immigrant families.
“There are very few problems that are only in cities and aren’t in the suburbs,” says Alan Trager, LCSW, who has been with the agency for 32 years and served as Executive Director/CEO for the past ten. And, he emphasizes, Westchester has its cities: “Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Peekskill and New Rochelle share many of the same issues as Manhattan or the Bronx,”
Counseling and Clinics
WJCS began with a focus on counseling and mental health programs – services that continue to be the backbone of the agency. WJCS operates licensed mental health clinics – its Family Mental Health Centers – at six locations (Hartsdale, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Peekskill, Yorktown and Yonkers) plus two satellites.. “We have always seen ourselves as countywide,” says Trager.
Its continuum of mental health services has also expanded to meet the range of its clients’ needs. There is a Continuing Day Treatment Program in White Plains and three Social Clubs for individuals recovering from mental illness in other parts of the County. The Family Mental Health Centers offer diagnostic and treatment services for children through Child and Family Clinic Plus. There are also bereavement services and AIDS mental health counseling.
“The agency has always had a reputation for providing high quality clinical services,” says Trager who spent his first six years with WJCS working in the clinics. “I got great training.”
In 1982, Trager led the launch of a new WJCS program dealing with incest and sexual abuse. “Over the next 25 years that had grown into our Treatment Center for Trauma and Abuse,” he explains. The Center offers a variety of services including the Child Sexual Abuse Treatment Program, the Partner Abuse Intervention Program, an Adult Sexual Offender Treatment Program and the Family Matters Case Management/Safety Net program for children who are seriously emotionally disturbed, sexually reactive/aggressive and/or have been sexually abused.
Over the years, WJCS has both built on and expanded well beyond its initial foundation in clinical mental health services.
Home care was one early area of expanded services. Home Health Services of WJCS is licensed by the State to provide services to people in their places of residence in Westchester County and the Bronx. Personal Care Aides and Certified Home Health Care Aides, under the supervision of Registered Nurses, care for individuals who are unable to care for themselves.
Once again, specialized in-home supports are available to meet the varying needs of WJCS’ clients. Community Support Services (CSS), funded by the Westchester Department of Community Mental Health, provide specialty aide services for adults who are chronically mentally ill. Experienced aides with additional training in mental health issues and techniques provide services in the client’s home or in private or congregate settings, based on client needs.
Project Time-Out, established in 1982, provides in-home respite services to Westchester families who are caring for either a dependent older person or a child who is mentally retarded or developmentally disabled.
VoiceCare utilizes a personal emergency response device, a necklace-type activator pendant, that connects into the telephone system and round-the-clock monitoring supports to help frail elderly or medically compromised individuals remain safely in their homes.
In the late 1970s, WJCS answered the call to create community-based residential programming for individuals with developmental disabilities who were leaving State-run institutions like Willowbrook and Letchworth Village. In response to the New York Cares initiative under Governor Pataki, the agency further expanded in this area in the 1990’s.
“Today we have ten group homes with a total of 81 residents, ages 21-90 plus,” says Trager. “Over the course of the next two years we will be adding four more. This has become a very important part of the WJCS misson.”
Also during the 1990s, WJCS began to expand its community-based programs. “The mountain went to Mohammed,” says Trager.
“We are in a large number of schools with an array of programs,” says Trager. Amazing Afternoons is an Advantage After-School Program serving 120 youngsters in Mt. Vernon’s Edward Williams Elementary School. ASPIRE offers academic support, career exploration, arts and sports activities – as well as family literacy programming -- to 150 students and their families at the AB Davis Middle School in Mt. Vernon. The Community Schools Initiative, located at the Sleepy Hollow Middle School, is funded by United Way and Verizon Corporation to provide in-house youth development, health and social services to ensure that children are physically, emotionally and socially prepared to learn. WJCS has been asked to replicate this program in New Rochelle.
Young Parents Achieve! offers teens who are pregnant or already parents the supports they need to stay in school and further their education. A Different Start, on the other hand, serves young girls who are pregnant or parenting but have already left school. “If you are going to have a future, you need to have basic education, job readiness skills, vocational enhancement and parenting skills,” says Trager.
The Parent Child Home Program is a home-based literacy service that strengthens families with young children 18 months to four years of age. “A specially-trained ‘visitor’ goes to the home twice a week,” says Trager. “The aim is to enhance communication between parent/guardian and the child – to encourage them as their child’s first teacher, first playmate. It is like a home-based Early Head Start program. We have been doing it for 35 years and each Springwe have an annual reunion ceremony where kids come back after they’ve gone on to graduate college and sometimes medical or law school. What a wonderful statement about the impact of the program and a testimony to the efforts of these children and their families!”
WJCS offers a host of community programs for other specialized populations. Center Lane is Westchester’s only community center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) adolescents. Fresh Start provides Pre-Release Workshops for women inmates at the Westchester County Department of Corrections facility in Valhalla. The Latino Peer Education Project engages young people to provide Spanish-speaking educational workshops to Latino families about pregnancy prevention, domestic violence awareness, and substance abuse prevention.
Sometimes, it feels like WJCS is everywhere doing everything.
“On one block in Yonkers, we have a Family Mental Health Center that offers Learning Center services, counseling from our Treatment Center for Trauma and Abuse and outpatient services for consumers with mental health problems” says Trager. “Next door we run a day care center. A Different Start is around the corner and our group home for developmentally disabled adults is one block away.”
Building on a Broad
Much of WJCS’ growth has come through the addition of programs, which are natural extensions of its core services.
Two years ago, for example, the agency was selected by The Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation® to operate four “Margaret’s Place” safe rooms in public schools across Westchester County. The program provides students who have been affected by domestic abuse with a safe place in school where they can meet with counselors or social workers trained in domestic violence intervention and prevention. “We got that grant based on our experience working with domestic violence through our Treatment Center for Trauma and Abuse and our experience running school-based programs. It was a natural,” says Trager.
Similarly, WJCS has been augmenting services for individuals with autism and their families. “We have always provided services to the autism population,” says Trager. “It became clear to us in the last few years that the community needed and wanted more. We started the Autism Family Center a little over a year ago (See box below) and created Milestones, an early intervention program, which is serving a significant number of kids on the autism spectrum. This is an area where we see the probability of providing more and more services.”
WJCS has also worked hard to develop new programs and services by matching resources from one service area with client needs in another. For example, the agency’s clinics provide specialized outpatient counseling services for individuals with developmental disabilities, including those living in its residential programs. “They have the same emotional problems that you and I have,” says Patricia L. Grossman, LCSW, who directs the program. “They get depressed and anxious. They may have obsessive compulsive disorder or be bipolar.”
This kind of programmatic cross-fertilization demonstrates the advantages that come with being a large, multi-service agency. “Sometimes the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts,” says Trager. “A case in point: A group of high functioning young men living in one of our residences were learning how to go shopping and count money. In our Home Care program we were caring for some isolated, homebound elderly adults. We had the seniors put together shopping lists and the guys from our group home went to the store for them and delivered the items. It was win-win. And each thought they were doing the other a favor. It didn’t require any additional funding. When we listen to our clients and take advantage of our wide spectrum of services, innovative, dynamic programs can be created.”
On the other hand,Trager acknowledges that sometimes an agency with 700 staff, 70-plus programs and a $31 million budget isn’t always as integrated as you might want.
In response, WJCS has taken a number of deliberate steps to improve the coordination of its service delivery.
“A few times a year, our upper level and mid-level managers go to visit programs with which they are not intimately familiar,,” says Trager. “There are two reasons. First, I want our administrative staff to be more knowledgeable about the programs we offer -- not just the ones they oversee -- and to better appreciate the consumer’s perspective as well. Second, if you are out of your element, you ask the best questions. For example, if you visited one of our group homes, how did it feel? What did it look like? Were the staff friendly? Were the case records clear? Could you follow what was going on?” The visiting managers bring new ideas to the programs they visit and come away with tips for their own. They also have a better idea of how WJCS’ 70 programmatic pieces can mesh together.
In addition, as part of its new strategic plan, the agency has established two new positions – Directors of both Children’s Services and Geriatric Services – to ensure that its varied programs are meeting the needs of these two core constituencies. “If you are in charge of an adolescent program, a day care center or one of our residences, you tend to focus on your programmatic silo,” says Trager. “These Directors think more expansively. There are kids in almost all of our programs.” Are there things we are doing in one program that work effectively with children and should be replicated in others or in all of them? Are there ways we need to adjust our service delivery? What are the best practices out there? ” The same, he explains, is true of work with seniors.
These two new senior executive positions are also key to another element of WJCS’ strategic plan – adapting to and planning for the major demographic changes that are taking place throughout Westchester County. “The geriatric population is the fastest growing demographic segment,” says Trager. “We want to continue developing services to support these residents.”
Westchester’s rapidly expanding Hispanic population is also a major focus. “We are working on being more culturally competent,” says Trager.
Increasingly, WJCS is stepping forward as a leader in working with County government, other nonprofits and local communities to coordinate the development of needed programs and services. “As a long-standing agency with a great deal of experience and expertise, we have a responsibility to work with these constituencies to be on the planning side of the discussion…and to help think through the issues, frame the problems and help find possible solutions. We are trying to bring ‘integrative programming’ to communities where we look at what we do and what other agencies do and identify gaps,” says Trager. “Then we look at what we can do to fill these gaps, either through programs in our own agency or in others.” WJCS is working on this type of effort in Mt. Vernon with support from the Frog Rock Foundation. One outcome has been the creation of a home visiting program, similar to the Parent Child Home Program, that focuses on learning readiness of young children. “Mt. Vernon didn’t have anything like that,” says Trager.
WJCS’ strategic plan also calls for strengthening the agency itself – both financially and through staff development. Like most agencies WJCS is hoping to increase its base of private donors to supplement the funding it receives from government and foundations. “We really need to ramp that up and help contributors understand the value of investing in us,” says Trager.
The strategic plan also makes the wellbeing of WJCS’ 700 employees a priority.
“Any nonprofit service provider is only as good as its staff,” says Trager. “We are focusing a great deal of attention on enhancing supports for our staff.” Most important, he acknowledges, is finding ways to improve compensation levels. “It is a challenge,” says Trager. “We are in an industry that is under-funded by government. This is a significant issue we are addressing with our board.”
Meanwhile, however, WJCS already must be doing something right. “We have a stable, solid management team and do not have very much turnover,” says Trager. “Our Parent Child Home Program is over 35 years old and has only had two directors. The Learning Center is 40 years old with only two directors. The Treatment Center for Trauma and Abuse is 25 years old with only two directors. People are staying and I believe they are staying for the right reasons. They are committed to our agency, committed to strengthening the lives of people in Westchester and committed to positively shaping the future in our County.”