Podcast Transcription

Saranda West: Welcome to the Accelerant podcast, where we are impacting thought leadership in the nonprofit community.

Hi there. Thank you for joining me on the show. I’m your host, Saranda West, Director of Product at Daxko. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Samantha Dubrinsky.

Sam as the Executive Director of the Levite JCC. And prior to that, she spent several years as the Director of Community impact at the Birmingham Jewish Federation.

Sam, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I know it’s a head spinning moment in our worlds. I really appreciate, um, yeah, you just taking the time.  

Samantha Dubrinsky: Of course, of course. Head spinning is a great way to describe it. So, yes.  

SW: To start off, just tell us a little bit more about yourself.

SD: Sure. I started officially as the Executive Director of the Levite JCC at the beginning of this year, January 1st. So, this is quite a way to ring in my first official year as Executive Director. But we are looking for the silver linings in all of this situation and trying to make the best of it.

Prior to being at the JCC, I worked for the Birmingham Jewish Federation, which is sort of a Jewish United Way. Basically, it’s a fundraising agency, and we focus a lot on community relations and community impact. That gave me a great background for being able to focus on what our JCC is doing in the community.

SW: Absolutely. To give some context for those listening, it is Thursday, April 2nd. It feels like I shouldn’t have to say that, but right now I feel that everything changes within the hour. I know that just as of this morning, what is the state of the community in Birmingham right now?

Food Service and Essential Childcare

SD: Due to COVID-19 the, and all the many ramifications of that virus spreading so rapidly, with schools being shut down for the remainder of the school year, preschools and daycares being shut down, essential workers.  

The Jefferson County Department of Health actually expanded the essential worker definition to include grocers and pharmacists and state and local government officials, because there is such a need for resources for those essential workers, with all the preschools and daycares and schools being closed.

We have been mobilizing to the community from that perspective. Families who depend on the school lunch programs aren’t able to access those. They’re coming by and picking up food. We’re delivering some food to senior centers as well. It has been amazing to me. If I were a really good numbers person, I feel like I could design a graph that would show the increased needs of food over the past two weeks. It has been exponential.

There is such a need for resources… We have been mobilizing to the community.

Shocking are the requests that we have gotten because there are agencies who serve as shelters who are completely out of food already. In Birmingham, Alabama, we are two and a half, three weeks into this stay-at-home order. We are trying to gear ourselves up to really prepare for even more increased needs for food.

To be honest, it has gotten more challenging the first week was. Restaurants were donating and people were dropping off donations and there was a lot of energy. Now as the anxiety surrounding this virus and what it means for the economy and people’s individual financial situations, the donations have slowed down, which is understandable, but it doesn’t remove the pressure of the needs of the Birmingham community.

The food service is part of that. We plan to continue that as long as we can. Then we have a program called Operation Cares, which is providing childcare for those essential workers. We’re offering it through our preschool, which normally has room for over 200 kids.

Given the CDC guidelines, we’re accepting about 50 kids right now, and that’s six and under. Then our camp is for older kids, up to age 12. We are trying to take the anxiety away from those children, especially because their parents are on the front line fighting this virus, trying to serve the community in a number of different ways.

We just want to provide them with a fun experience at this time. Everybody needs a little fun in their lives right now, and kids, especially when their worlds have been turned upside down with no school. Really, that’s how we’re responding to the needs of the community. The anxiety and the fear of this uncertain time is, we all know it’s unprecedented, but it’s just hard to put into words how that’s affecting Birmingham, and I’m sure everywhere in the US.  

SW: Right. Yeah, that just breaks my heart for the kids. I was listening to another podcast and, you know, everyone is just trying to deal with everything that’s coming at them right now. We have people, obviously there are people dying from the virus.

That is traumatic as well. Kids not going to school seems trivial compared to those other things, but for them, it’s all they know, right? It’s all they’ve ever known. Their poor little worlds have just been turned upside down, and they feel it.

I know as a parent I’ve been trying to explain to my kids what’s happening. To be a child and to know that your parents are out there and what everyone is describing is scary. I can’t imagine.  

SD: It breaks my heart, too. Even on the parent perspective, parents who are not essential workers but who are at home are being expected to parent their kids, teach their kids and also work, and keep up with responsibilities.  

Maybe the definition of essential worker is expanding. I don’t know what that looks like from a Health Department perspective, but my heart breaks daily for all the needs and the trouble that people are facing. It’s also really full, too, you because to see the community coming together in this way right now is just so amazing. I mean, really it is.  

SW: Absolutely. What does your preschool and the camp look like in terms of, are you having to go through separate or different from a contact standpoint? Six feet? Have you just re-imagined the whole thing?

SD: Yes. I have a one-year-old and I can’t imagine trying to keep him six feet away from another baby, but we are working really hard to make sure that we are following the CDC guidelines. We’ve been approved by the Health Department to have both of these programs going on and we have very low ratios both in the preschool classrooms and in the areas that we are having camps.  

We have two babies in a room instead of six. I think the maximum amount of kids that we have in a space is six kids. That is so that we are able to keep them six feet apart and we are measuring out that six feet and we give them their little area and they’re contained in that area.

We clean and disinfect and we’re following all the guidelines, but it definitely presents some unique challenges that, when we started this process, we didn’t necessarily anticipate or go through in our heads, what that looked like. We’re rolling with the punches and figuring it out as we go.

It’s hard to keep kids six feet away from each other, and it’s hard to explain to them why they need to. They don’t understand what this really means, especially the babies and the little ones, but it’s interesting to hear their interpretations of why they need to be six feet away from each other.

SW: Awesome. Go back just real quick to the food part. I think everyone has just so much uncertainty, like, “How can I financially provide for my family in terms of giving?” What does that look like in terms of how you’ve operationalized the food?

You mentioned donations from restaurants. How else are you getting donations? And for Operations Cares?

Acquiring Donations

SD: We have asked people if they’re not comfortable going to the store to make a financial donation to us, and we will go out and buy what we need. We have also purchased some meals from restaurants at cost, which has been still very generous of restaurants to be offering that to us.  

We are trying to avoid handling food as much as possible from a virus spread standpoint. We prefer to have those meals. With the meal, we pass out a snack bag with a perishable and non-perishable snack for kids and the donations of actual food and product help us provide that for the kids so that they have something to take home with them.

That’s generally how we’re going about donations. We do have a drop box at the front of the JCC, so you don’t have to come inside. You can literally roll down your window and put it in the box. You don’t have to have human contact, but we do have volunteers here every day, working on putting the food together and packaging it and handing it out.

I’ve really been amazed by the amount of people who are willing to come out and help during this time.  

SW: That’s great. I noticed actually on your website for the J that the lobby is open for donations. What kind of response have you seen volunteers or even just donations during this time?

SD: Yeah, we have had so many donations, which is amazing. We’ve used almost all of them at this point, and we’re hoping that we’ll get in some more through the rest of the week so that we can continue to provide the snack bags, which have fresh fruit in them, which we know is so important from a nutrition standpoint.

We’re also doing a PPE drive, personal protective equipment for medical professionals, because the healthcare professionals who are being asked to put their lives on the line and to not have any protection, I think is criminal. We are collecting masks, gloves, head covers, gowns, all of that equipment, and we’re donating it through the health department to local hospitals in need.

I’ve been really surprised by the turnout with the PPE equipment as well. People bringing masks that they may have bought when they had the flu two years ago, and that has made a huge difference because we do want to protect our healthcare workers during this time. Volunteers are so excited to get out of the house and have some interaction.

Not only are we providing for the community in need, but also those who desperately want to do something to help right now, but don’t know how to help. Something that’s really tough about being in the JCC during this time is that everything we do revolves around human interaction.

Something that’s really tough about being in the JCC during this time is that everything we do revolves around human interaction.

So, it feels like we have been really crippled to offer our services. I think that our community members, non-members, anyone who’s familiar with the JCC recognize that and are taking us up on these opportunities for human interaction in a limited capacity, because they want that. They know how important that is to their wellbeing as well.

There’s a lot of people winning in this situation from the community efforts, and that has been unexpected from my end. I don’t think I understood how helpless some people felt, because I am in this every day. I’m here at the JCC. I’m working, so I haven’t had that feeling of, “Gosh, I don’t know what to do at this time.”

A volunteer said that to me the other day, and it just really affected me because that feeling of not being in control and not being able to contribute in a positive way to a solution is really hard.

SW:  I think that that’s exactly where I am. We were talking about this earlier from a Daxko perspective.  

We provide software for a JCC to check people in. You don’t have people coming into your facility right now, right? So, that’s how I’ve been able to cope with it is just focus on the new things we can help build to provide that meaning. I hope it’s helpful, but then also, that’s selfish on my part.

I just want to help. A big part of the J is the coming in to work out, the community aspect. Obviously, the facilities are closed, but what does that look like for you now?

More than a Fitness Facility

SD:  It’s funny. A staff member said this to me yesterday, and I thought it was so perfect. The JCC is so much more than just a fitness facility and in our community, we fight the perception that we are just a workout facility and it took the JCC having to close for us to be seen as something more than just a gym.

It’s tough to walk through the halls of the JCC and have them be empty, but I think that this is a real learning opportunity for us as JCC staff and even our volunteers and also for our members to understand what it is we offer the community apart from their daily routine of coming in and doing a group fitness class and leaving.

It’s easy when we get caught up in our day-to-day. We walk into the JCC, we know exactly where we’re going. We don’t even look at who’s passing us in the hall because we’re so focused.  

This experience has really opened our members’ eyes, and we have gotten so much positive feedback from our members. From a financial perspective, members saying, “We are not going to cancel our membership because of what you are doing in the community.” That speaks volumes to me, especially in these uncertain financial times that people are willing to continue their membership, that they are getting absolutely no services for right now, other than what we’re providing virtually, which we are working really hard on, but they, they see the value and they understand the importance.

This experience has really opened our members’ eyes, and we have gotten so much positive feedback from our members. From a financial perspective, members saying, “We are not going to cancel our membership because of what you are doing in the community.”

That is so meaningful, and I think it says a lot about what the JCC stands for.  

SW: I think one of the things we’ve all been in a lot of ways grieving what our normal was, and whenever normal comes back, it won’t be the same. We’ll go into a new normal. How are you trying to figure out what that new normal is?

I think it is, like you said, an opportunity for people to see what you’re doing in the community and that actually could look different two months from now.

The New Normal

SD: Yeah, I read this really interesting article in The Atlantic that basically talked about how humans become really creative in times of boredom and in times of slowness, which is definitely what a lot of people are experiencing right now.

They’re at home and they’re having to come up with different ways to entertain their kids or entertain themselves or find that value and connection with other human beings without being face-to-face with them. I’m really looking forward to how we take those lessons and also the opportunity to have that creativity.

Now, there are a lot of studies that show even just having your phone on the table, if you’re trying to brainstorm, inhibits your ability to really think creatively. Removing the distraction of work and the 24/7, we’ve got to be on, and the consuming of information constantly, I think will give us a real opportunity to reinvent ourselves. Not that I think we needed re-inventing from the start, but as you said, we are going to have to adapt to this new normal and what it looks like, and I’m excited about it.

I really am. This experience has shown us what’s important. There is a lot of value in a group fitness class and staying healthy from a physical perspective, but what is really important is the community that we’ve created and the opportunities that we’re having to make a difference right now that that is what gives the JCC its lasting power and the community  

SW: As someone who, you know, I consider you working on the front lines as well. How are you taking care of yourself and staying healthy during this time?

Staying Healthy

SD: That’s going to make me cry. That’s been a challenge. I feel so much pressure. I’m sorry. I get emotional. I feel so much pressure from the needs of the community and the people that I’m hearing from who come to pick up the food who are crying, because they don’t know how they’re going to feed their kids over the next couple of weeks.

That is what keeps me going during this. I haven’t seen my family much, and that is because I’m driven to be here and to make sure that we are doing everything we can to help those who aren’t able to be at home with their families during this crisis, or maybe they don’t have a good family life, or they are worried about where their next meal is coming from.

I probably do need to be a little bit better about taking care of myself and making sure that our entire staff who is also on the frontline and exposing themselves is also taking care of themselves.  

Next week is Passover, which is my favorite Jewish holiday, and the lessons of Passover, of commemorating the resilience of the Jewish people and also remembering a plague and the middle of a global pandemic is very relevant. I think we’re all excited to take that time with our families, Passover is going to be different this year, because normally you have a big Seder and everyone’s together.  

People are adapting and creating virtual opportunities for Seders, but I think that’s really a time for us to reflect and understand what this situation means for us as a people, as individuals and reflect on the resilience that we have. It’s easy to get discouraged during this time. So, I’m looking forward to that little break and that spiritual injection, I guess, for lack of better phrase.

SW: Yeah. Just a time to reenergize yourself. Yeah, absolutely.  

So Sam, if someone wants to learn more about how they can help the J during this time or volunteer or all of those things, what’s the best resource for them to go and follow up?

Connect with the Levite JCC

SD: Best resource would be our website, bhamjcc.org.

We have a whole COVID-19 page that also has some virtual resources for our members, or really anyone who wants to take advantage of them, but goes into detail about our Operation Cares efforts and the food service that we’re providing.  

There’s a volunteer link. There’s a donation link. We’ve been putting out calls for donations, for specific items that we need on our Facebook and Instagram, and social media has just been a really great way for us to get the word out.

SW: Perfect. Perfect. Any final words for the people that may be listening to this and just in terms of what you’re reflecting on?

Final Words

SD: Yeah, I think it’s really hard for us to find the beauty in this situation, because it is so scary, but I do think that there are silver linings and it’s important for all of us to be looking for those silver lining so that we can stay mentally and even physically well.  

I love seeing how many people are outside right now. When I go home, it’s hard to even make it down the street in my car because there are so many people out and about walking, being with their families. That’s a very small silver lining that not everyone has access to, but it’s something that I think we need to hold onto at this point.

Our silver lining at the JCC is being able to provide these services for the community and how much the community has supported us and these efforts, the willingness to help and that. It’s just really beautiful. It’s really beautiful in a time where it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of beauty to encourage everyone to look for those.

SW: Absolutely. Thank you so much for all that you and your team and your staff are doing for the community during this time. If there’s anything that Daxko can be of help, please let us know.  

SD: Thank you. Thank you.

Thank you for joining us on this episode of the Accelerant podcast. To check out previous episodes, see the full list on daxko.com or your favorite podcast app.

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