Posted by Hannah Nersasian
Miriam Fein first came into contact with JF&CS at five years old, when her family fled Romania and arrived in America as refugees. "My aunt connected us with JF&CS – the agency had just started its New American Services program and through this program JF&CS found an apartment for us. I was very young but I realized that it was strangers who had done it all for us – furnished the apartment and considered all the details, down to a tray for silverware in the kitchen."
JF&CS remained a source of support for Miriam – after she had her first child, she signed up to have a Visiting Mom, joined a local New Moms group run by JF&CS, and had a lactation consultant visit her. Miriam recalls: "She gave me support and was like an angel – everything would be horrible and then she'd come through the door and everything would be wonderful!"
So when Miriam's children started school and she found herself with more time, she knew that she wanted to volunteer for JF&CS. "JF&CS has come into my life at various points. I have such an appreciation for what the agency has done for me personally. When my kids started school I had time and I knew that being involved with JF&CS and volunteering was what I wanted to do."
A few inquiries led Miriam to the Friendly Visitor Program, within JF&CS Jewish Healing Connections, which she felt would be a great fit for her: "Now my grandparents were gone and my parents were gone and I wanted to connect with that generation and was aware of the impact that having a conversation and having company could make. I felt like I could make an impact doing something that was mutually beneficial."
Miriam met with Sue Spielman, coordinator of the Friendly Visitor program, and told Sue about her history with the agency, which inspired Sue and other staff to find Miriam's family's record from 1973. Sue arranged for Miriam and her aunt to come into the office to see the record and meet the director of New American Services, Ena Feinberg. Not long after this visit, Miriam received a call from Sue; - she had found a match for Miriam - Ena's mother! Sue recalls, "I'd remembered how Ena spoke so fondly about her mother and when I met Miriam I really felt they'd be a great match. One of my favorite parts of coordinating the Friendly Visitor Program is meeting with each volunteer when I get the opportunity to really learn about their personality and preferences. It's important to me that I match each volunteer with an elder that they will really love to visit."
The match was very well made and the pair has found a real friendship. "Almost every time when we say goodbye we talk about what a gift we are to each other," Miriam recounts. "It's a friendship – if I talk about her in conversation with other people it's as my friend. We feel really close to each other – almost like family."
The visits are simple – Miriam visits Lita's home and they talk or look through old photo albums. They share a love of language, and switch between Russian and English, often consulting dictionaries to look up an interesting translation or definition. "We're always so amazed that we don't plan anything for our visits," Miriam says. "It's all very spontaneous and it just flows."
It's clear that Miriam gets as much from being a Friendly Visitor as she gives. When talking about her favorite elements of the program, she says, "From the perspective of a volunteer, everyone is so busy and distracted and when I visit with her we're just sitting and talking. There's a focus to it that I really like. Older generations have so much to share that they often don't get a chance to. I wish there were more opportunities for people to make connections across generations beyond their own family."
Opportunity for connection is what the Friendly Visitor Program is all about. The program encourages volunteers to build a friendship with their elder, and the friendship Miriam and Lita have found together is one of many successful matches made through the program. Miriam sums it up by saying, "I didn't expect to have this level of connection. I hoped it'd be a good match but I didn't expect it to be so good. I feel very lucky to have met her."
JF&CS is thrilled to have played a role in bringing these two together!
Hannah Nersasian is the JF&CS Manager of Volunteer Services. She joined JF&CS in February 2014. Prior to that, Hannah worked at Horizons for Homeless Children as the Director of the Greater Boston Playspace Program, a volunteer based program. Hannah is originally from Somerset, England and moved to Boston in 2010. In England, Hannah worked for a national volunteering organization called TimeBank, where she coordinated employee volunteering programs for Sony UK and T-Mobile.