Barbara Sarapas has been a client of the Jewish Family Service of St. Paul (JFS) Kosher Meals on Wheels program for more than two years, but the combination of her health challenges and the ongoing pandemic has made the service all the more important.
“Walking into 2020, I thought ‘this is going to be my year,’” she said. “Then of course we had the pandemic.”
As Sarapas has struggled with her health challenges after recovering from cancer and then needing brain surgery, she has relied on people at her synagogue to help her shop since she no longer is able to go to the grocery store, and the delivery of her meals from Kosher Meals on Wheels to feed her day-to-day.
Sarapas is not alone; since the start of the pandemic, Jill Grover, the JFS aging and disability services director who oversees the Kosher Meals on Wheels program, said that there has been a massive increase in the need for the program’s services.
“Our program pre-pandemic was serving about 18-20 clients actively; now we have 35,” Grover said. “Most of that was new clients; a couple of existing clients increased what they were receiving, but the majority were new clients because it’s more challenging for them to get out.”
Marc Loken is one of those new clients since the pandemic. He was homeless about a year ago, and since then he’s been able to secure an apartment and depends on the JFS program.
“I hate cooking and someone had suggested to try Meals on Wheels,” Loken said. “I fell in love with it. There’s a variety of different kinds of foods, different frequencies at which you want [it delivered]. And the ease; all you do is put it in a microwave.”
JFS CEO Ruth Hampton Olkon said that the pandemic has put an increased strain on multiple areas of the agency where it has seen large increases in service needs. It’s been able to step up to meet the needs thanks to funding from St. Paul Jewish Federation’s Yad B’Yad campaign to raise money for the local Jewish organizations, which have seen a significant upturn in expenses since the pandemic started.
Olkon said that the agency’s emergency financial assistance program was able to help 50 households — 30 more than usual — because of the Federation’s specific-COVID effort and an emergency grant from the Otto Bremer Trust.
“In a number of key ways, Yad B’Yad really provided support for our most essential services,” she said. “The additional funding for Kosher Meals on Wheels is just one example, but it’s a really important program for us; it’s the only Kosher Meals on Wheels in the east metro and one of the ways that Jewish organizations partner. Anyone who needs meals will get, and the reason we can do that is because of Federation support.”
Another program Olkon mentioned is the employment assistance program; Yad B’Yad has allowed JFS to add a dedicated, full-time resource to the program which can now expand to help people entering or re-entering the workforce. For the past three years, JFS Employment Specialist Nancy Cohen has split her time between Emergency Financial Services and Employment Services. With this new Federation funding, Cohen can now focus, full-time, on employment services.
“Nancy gives me a list of careers that I should maybe look into, and then we also go over how we need to tweak the resume,” said Bante Mokonnen, who has been working with Cohen for several years. “She has inspired me.”
Olkon said that the third area where Yad B’Yad has helped is with the counseling program.
“We’ve continued to see increased demand for counseling,” Olkon said. “We’ve had a long-time waiting list for individual therapy, and we have the support to hire a part-time therapist to expand capacity. This isn’t short-term; the effect of this is going to be a long-term issue.”
More than $400,000 has been raised and distributed since the campaign was launched in November 2020. Allocations include $80,000 to Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, $15,000 to Lubavitch Cheder, $22,000 to Minnesota Hillel, $135,000 to Minnesota JCC, $135,000 to Sholom, and $15,000 to Talmud Torah of St. Paul. Yad B’Yad continues to raise funds to help St. Paul Jewish institutions address ongoing increased costs caused by the pandemic.