JFCS brings holiday cheer to vulnerable residents
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Tikkun olamGuardianship Holiday Gift Drive

JFCS brings holiday cheer to vulnerable residents

Part of the gift drive’s aim is to recognize that injured, elderly or disabled people who are deemed incompetent by the state have needs and desires beyond simply necessities.

Nicole Iole helps a JFCS client with his new iPad  (Photo courtesy of JFCS)
Nicole Iole helps a JFCS client with his new iPad (Photo courtesy of JFCS)

Every holiday season, Nicole Iole, Jewish Family & Community Services’ director of guardianship services, found herself buying crayons, coloring books and Giant Eagle gift cards for her clients.

Her fiscal assistant brought in warm clothes that her children had outgrown, and others in the department scoured their houses for items they could bring as presents for their clients, many of whom had no family or community to spend the holidays with.

All of these gifts were bought or donated from Iole and her staff’s own resources — until 2020 when local lawyer Edgar Snyder reached out to JFCS asking how he could help during the holidays.

Snyder sat on JFCS’ board, and when he asked where the organization had the most need, its leadership pointed him to its guardianship department.

That was the genesis of the JFCS Guardianship Holiday Gift Drive, which provides some of Pittsburgh’s most vulnerable and isolated residents with not only financial support but gifts that can spark joy and bring more dignity to their daily lives.

“Edgar is the most generous man I know,” Iole said. “The JFCS Guardianship department kind of flies under the radar, since we often work with people who want to keep their privacy.”

The guardianship branch of JFCS serves those the state of Pennsylvania considers incapacitated or incompetent. Iole and her staff help to manage their medical care, finances and general well-being as they transition through different life stages.

Guardianship Services works with people “of all walks of life,” Iole said. “It really is all kinds of people, of all ages and backgrounds — we have Carnegie Mellon professors who’ve had strokes and are now incapacitated.”

Guardianship Services assists 160 clients across the city, about 100 of whom have benefited from the gift drive, Iole said. Most of the clients are on a fixed income, which largely goes toward paying for living expenses at the group homes where they live, Iole said.

“At those group homes, you live with other people who are constantly taking your things or ruining them,” she said. “So, it means a lot to have anything of your own.”

One resident, Kenny Coberly, received a recliner from the gift drive, an item that would have been inaccessible otherwise.

“On the fixed income, Kenny wouldn’t have even been able to buy a pillow,” Iole said.

Part of the gift drive’s aim is to recognize that injured, elderly or disabled people who are deemed incompetent by the state have needs and desires beyond simply necessities.

Becoming a ward, as most Guardianship clients are, means the individual requires an aide to make decisions because they are not capable of making their own. But that doesn’t mean each person doesn’t have preferences and needs, Iole said.

“When we get clients Giant Eagle gift cards, it often goes towards coffee and cigarettes, which people sometimes judge,” she said. “We work a lot with mental health populations, and most people don’t realize that for someone who is schizophrenic, that ritual is important and calming.”

Some clients are young people dealing with challenges that have stopped their vivacity. One young man, a former skateboarder, was unable to keep up his hobby once his entire income started going toward his cost of living after a brain injury. Snyder’s donation allowed him to afford to go to a skateboarding facility and practice safely.

“A lot of our clients have desires and interests we just haven’t been able to fulfill before this program,” Iole said. “The gift drive allowed us to take them to the Pittsburgh Zoo or the Carnegie Museum, and many of them have never been to something like that before. We got a Phipps Conservatory membership for our younger members, and they wanted to go every single day.”

Ruben Fontanez, another JFCS Guardianship client, asked this year for a pair of blue Beats headphones since his cheap earbuds keep breaking. Fontanez is a “bright and joyful soul” and “listening to Mariah Carey and other old-school artists helps lift his mood,” so having higher-quality headphones improves his daily life, Iole said.

This year, JFCS expanded the gift drive to allow the wider Pittsburgh community to follow Snyder’s example of giving, even in small ways. Anyone who wishes can buy something for a JFCS client from their registry through December. PJC

Emma Riva is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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