As the communications manager at JFS, it’s my job to help tell JFS’s story. I do that by writing our annual report, our newsletters, marketing materials to promote our services and programs, ads for the Jewish News, sometimes articles for the Jewish News. I write letters to prospective donors of our Spotlight event, The Joy Project and Adopt a Family so they can best understand exactly how their donation dollars are spent. I handle media relations, promoting our events on community calendars and trying to get editorial coverage. I also contribute to the messaging we put out on social media. Basically, if there are words involved, I’m your girl.
But when I first started here, almost five years ago, I had a bit of a learning curve. My background is in advertising and JFS is my first non-profit job. I had previously spent years writing TV and radio commercials, newspaper ads, brochures and more to help sell dog food, lottery tickets, toothpaste—Colgate and Tom’s– and yogurt, among many other things. Now I was being tasked with “selling” JFS.
In order to do that, I had to understand the specifics of how JFS helps people. I had a cursory understanding in the beginning. I knew we offered services that focused on older adults, mental health and wellness and safety net services. I knew those three service areas translated into services such as transportation, home care and geriatric care management services for older adults. I knew we provided counseling and suicide prevention trainings. I knew we helped families with case management and health care navigation.
I came to learn even more about these service areas by way of client stories that were shared with me—usually snippets in an email from a case manager. Sometimes these snippets were letters written by appreciative clients themselves. I would use these bits and pieces, as well as what I would pull from my own imagination, and create a client story for use in our ads and fundraising materials for programs such as our Friends campaign, The Joy Project and Adopt a Family.
Just as I had a learning curve when I joined JFS, back in my advertising years, I also had a learning curve–every time I worked on a new account. I knew I wouldn’t be able to write something compelling if I didn’t know enough about it. So when Colgate came out with those one time use toothbrushes—remember Wisps?—I got to try them out. When Chobani started introducing new flavors, I got to taste them. And when I worked at the ad agency that handled the account for the Humane Society…let’s just say it was more than toothbrushes and yogurt I brought home. (It was a cat. I named him Tyler.)
But when the world turned upside down with the COVID pandemic, and most of the JFS programming got cancelled, I found myself with a reduced workload. So when the Resource Center was looking for volunteers to help cover what we knew would be a significant increase in calls, I raised my hand. I thought if I could speak directly to the clients, hear their stories straight from their own mouths, if I could connect them myself with the services they needed, I thought it would enrich my understanding of what we do and would help inform my work as communications manager. Basically it seemed to be a great way for me to sample the yogurt.
I’m not going to lie. Getting started with the Resource Center was a little intimidating. First, I’m not a social worker. Secondly, there has been a lot to learn! Correction—there IS a lot to learn. And given my part-time status, there is a lot I will likely never learn. The bulk of the phone calls I help with have been for people seeking counseling as well as help for older adults, including Kosher Meals on Wheels.
Before joining the Resource Center, I understood at the general level that people call us for counseling. But to speak to a post-partum mother of three who was struggling with anxiety around COVID and the safety of her family, I ached for her suffering. But I was grateful to have been empowered to give her a free consultation with a therapist for the very next day. Since then, she has been working on a regular basis with one of our therapists.
Before joining the Resource Center, I had been told that many of the older adults and families we serve are often quite dysfunctional, making it difficult to give them the help they need. This was a theoretical idea for me. Until I took a call from the son of an 80-year-old woman who lived out of state and needed help getting his mother to the hospital for scheduled surgery. His brothers lived locally, but neither were speaking to their mother. So I shared the phone number for our transportation department, but that was hardly the end of my interaction with this family.
In subsequent conversations, I learned that the mother was sleeping in a recliner and washing up in a sink because she was unable to safely climb the stairs to her bedroom and shower. She clearly needed more than just a ride to the hospital. And she has since been enrolled in GCM services, so she will receive more of the support that she needs.
Soon I will be working with the rest of the marketing department to develop our Friends fundraising campaign. It will be the sixth campaign I’ve been involved with. Typically, client stories feature prominently in this campaign and over the past five years I’ve written countless scenarios of people requiring all different kinds of help.
But this year, when I start thinking about the stories we’ll tell, I won’t have to rely nearly as much on my imagination. I’ll have a new well to draw from, thanks to my experience in the Resource Center. But this experience has done much more than just help inform my writing. It has given me the opportunity to speak to some of the thousands we’ve served, and that has been humbling. To speak with them and know that JFS can give them the answers they seek, that has been inspiring.
As communications manager, my role is very much behind the scenes. But my time in the Resource Center has allowed me to step out and stand on the front lines. And doing so has given me a whole new appreciation of the vital and sacred work we perform at JFS every day.
Debbie Feit is the Communications Manager at JFS. When she’s not writing marketing content for JFS she’s writing (hopefully) funny humor pieces and texts to her children to pick up the phone when she calls.