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JFS and JVS partner to provide food, transportation to local refugees

In this photo a JVS refugee family receives a food box donation for a local charity.

Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) and Jewish Family Services (JFS) are joining forces to help the Kansas City refugee community with much-needed food and transportation beginning next month.  JVS is the largest refugee resettlement agency in the metropolitan area, resettling over 5,000 refugees in the Kansas City community since 2004.  Last year alone, JVS resettled almost 600 refugees from 14 different countries.

While recent decisions by the federal government mean that very few new refugees will be coming to Kansas City for at least the next four months, many of the recently resettled families find themselves with ongoing financial needs after the brief three-month period when they receive financial support from the U.S. government.  Two of the greatest areas of need for these new Americans are food and transportation.  To help meet these needs, JVS and JFS are announcing a new partnership to improve the lives of these families.  JFS will open its new food pantry located in East Brookside to the community served by JVS.  Monthly food boxes will be prepared and delivered by volunteers under the direction of the JFS food pantry staff.  A typical monthly food box for a refugee family of five might include 5 pounds of rice, four bags of beans, eggs and fresh vegetables.  Paper goods such as toilet paper and paper towels will also be included. 

In addition, JFS will utilize the infrastructure of its older adult transportation system, JET Express, and create Refugee Rides, a volunteer-based transportation program for refugees served by JVS.   The program will provide transportation to medical appointments, school programs, and cultural activities to help refugees access needed services and adjust to life in Kansas City. 

The two agencies will jointly recruit and train volunteer drivers for this new transportation program, and JVS social workers will manage the day-to-day operations. They hope food collections, training programs and actual services will begin sometime in March.

“Most of the Jewish community is descended from refugees,” said Don Goldman, executive director and CEO of JFS.  “We are so proud that JVS honors that heritage by helping lead the resettlement of thousands of refugees in the Kansas City area.”

“JFS is proud to partner with JVS to help these new Americans at this critical time in our country’s history.  This program is in direct alignment with our commitment to supporting the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, one person, one family at a time.”

Hilary Cohen Singer, executive director of JVS, said, “Our refugee families work so hard to build new lives for themselves in Kansas City. We are very pleased to partner with JFS to help make this transition easier for those in greatest need.”

The two agencies have been discussing long-term ways to work together since last May, when JFS announced plans to move its Missouri office to Brookside and JVS was moving into new headquarters at 4600 The Paseo. JFS is now operational in its new Missouri offices, but before that, Goldman said the two agencies were “pretty remote, with JVS at 16th and Baltimore and JFS at 93rd and Ward Parkway.”

Now that JFS and JVS are located only a few miles apart from each other, they were considering ways to cooperate, such as opening the JFS Food Pantry to refugees being served by JVS and making the JVS Clothes Closet available to JFS clients. Most newly arrived refugees live in the historic northeast area along Independence Avenue, which is a short drive to the JVS or Missouri JFS offices. 

But before the recent travel restrictions from seven predominantly Muslim countries were announced Jan. 27, the two agencies were not in a rush to get things started.

“Things don’t happen so quickly unless there is an impetus for it and I think the situation affecting refugees gave us the impetus to do things a little bit faster,” JVS’ Singer said.

Goldman added that things couldn’t have moved much faster as the JFS Food Pantry in Brookside just opened two weeks ago, and there are some areas in the building that are still being completed.

“As Hilary said, situations changed to make us modify what we were going to do a little bit and caused us to accelerate the pace since there are so many people in the refugee community that were in need,” Goldman said.

These two programs will be piloted through JVS’ social work department.  Singer said that department services approximately 300 refugee clients each year, which is about 40 to 50 families at any one time. 

“Depending on how quickly we are able to get the program up and running smoothly, we may expand it out to some of our other areas of work with refugees,” she said. “Those in the social work program are those who have the most critical needs.”

The two agencies are recruiting volunteers to prepare and deliver food boxes and drive refugee families to the doctor and other important appointments. JFS and JVS will also be reaching out to the community for food donations for this project.  To learn what food items are in greatest need go to www.jfskc.org or www.jvskc.org.

Goldman said the agencies are still in the operational phase of estimating how much food they will need to collect and how many volunteers they will need to operate Refugee Rides. Early estimations are that 50 to 75 boxes of food weighing about 40 pounds will be delivered each month. That’s about 3,000 more pounds of food  the pantry will distribute each month.

“Right now, the pantries in Missouri and Kansas distribute an average of 15,000 pounds of food each month,” Goldman explained. “In comparison, when the pantries started about four years ago, they were only distributing 5,000 pounds of food per month.”

Goldman explained that the pantry will need to purchase some food for these boxes, such as eggs, as it does for other pantry clients. Additional staff will also be needed to run this program through the JFS Missouri office.

“It’s hard to put eggs in a donation barrel,” said Goldman, adding that JFS and JVS will put out a specific call for the food that is needed.

“We may need bags of rice or packages of black beans, we’ll make very specific requests. We’ll be seeking donations from both the Jewish and general communities to fill those needs. We’ll also need to raise the money to cover the items we’ll need to buy from Harvesters or other sources.”

Because the topic of refugees in the United States is such a hot topic right now, JVS’ Singer thinks there is support for these new programs.

“JVS has seen an outpouring of support and people wanting to volunteer, which coincides exactly when refugees have stopped arriving. I think this provides a really nice way for people who want to help out to have something that will help refugee communities that are already  here in Kansas City,” she said. 

Right now, officials are estimating an additional 25 to 50 volunteers will need to be trained to assist with Refugee Rides.

“Our goal is not to cannibalize the volunteers we already have driving older adults because we need every one of those. We need to get new volunteers who are not currently part of our driving program,” Goldman said.

Goldman said the agencies expect to put out the word for specific food items, publicize dates to pack food boxes, and advertise specific dates for volunteer sessions where people can get trained within the next week to 10 days. Those dates will all be in March.  

“We’ll have follow-up on both websites (www.jfskc.org and www.jvskc.org) and social media for specific dates. We’ll also send email blasts to our supporters and establish a special list for people who want to be involved in these projects,” Goldman said.

JFS and JVS have a history of cooperating in regards to resettlement. 

“Both of our agencies were formed at different times to help new immigrants. JFS in 1901 and JVS in 1949, after World War II,” said Goldman. “In the ‘90s both agencies were part of Operation Exodus with the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City to help resettle Russian refugees. That was really a partnership of the whole Jewish community. As a joint effort, we resettled over 1,000 Russian refugees during the ‘90s and early 2000s,” he said. 

Goldman said then, and now, “Our Kansas City community has always responded in times of crises.”

“We know there will be support to make these important new programs possible for the most vulnerable in our community.”

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