Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services: An Organization Ready To Answer Your Call

by | Aug 19, 2022 | Being Responsive, Health & Human Services | 0 comments

Thousands of nonviolent, noncriminal calls come to St. Petersburg’s 911 call center annually. These are calls for which police officers would arrive with a gun, Taser, and handcuffs before the CALL program began.

The police approach to these types of calls changed in January 2021 when the St. Petersburg Police Department (St. Pete PD) partnered with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services (Gulf Coast JFCS).

This Pinellas-based agency’s name belies the breadth of its services since today’s Gulf Coast JFCS is more than its name implies. The agency began in 1960 with a three-person staff providing community counseling and family support to the Pinellas Jewish community.

Today, it covers 40 counties with over 550 employees and 300 volunteers. The organization serves people of all ages, faiths, cultures, and lifestyles, including individuals with behavioral health challenges, providing tools needed to thrive through life’s obstacles.

Gulf Coast JFCS services include affordable housing, support for elder and disabled persons, workforce development, refugee assistance, and case management, to name a few. While its services are vast, the agency’s behavioral health experience led St. Pete PD to choose Gulf Coast JFCS to implement the Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program.

Now, instead of sending officers armed with arrest devices to nonviolent, noncriminal emergencies, the 911 operators triage calls to Gulf Coast JFCS. The CALL program then dispatches community navigators guided by clinical staff. The team is trained in diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and trauma-informed care. It arrives equipped with a therapeutic, wrap-around approach to assist in cases of intoxication, drug overdose, mental health crisis, suicide intervention, truancy, homeless complaints, and neighborhood disputes.

Within 18 months of its February 2021 inception, CALL served over 6,000 clients through interventions that avoided police response and potential arrest. These might have been your neighbor, friend, family member, or a homeless citizen needing help navigating a crisis.

Social Worker Solution

Dr. Sandra Braham, CEO of Gulf Coast JFCS, attributes CALL’s success to St. Petersburg visionaries like Police Chief Anthony Holloway, former Mayor Rick Kriseman, and Mayor Ken Welch. They pursued a community collaboration to address the unrest following George Floyd’s death. She said, “They are the creators. We are the implementers.”

Now a model for other communities around the country, CALL allows the police to focus on criminal conduct rather than social services cases. Whether addressing behavioral health, financial, addiction, or other social hardships, the CALL staff is ready.

As board chair of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, Sandra remembers Chief Holloway and the business community committing to work together to ease the community’s tension.

The police chief had insight well before CALL was created, according to Megan McGee, special projects manager for St. Pete PD. Police Assisting the Homeless (PATH) was already underway, and other communities had embedded social workers with police officers. CALL is an innovative way to route calls more effectively to those who can help.

“The early concern during the pilot program was the safety of our social workers because we are not junior police officers,” said Sandra. That has proved otherwise, said Megan. “We focus on safety every day,” said Megan, explaining that navigators are trained in situational awareness. “We have had no incidences of violence or injury since the program started,” she added.

Solving Problems Together

Like Gulf Coast JFCS, Pinellas Community Foundation (PCF) believes many people face life challenges they cannot solve alone. Besides awarding a $25,000 grant for CALL, PCF provided grants for other Gulf Coast JFCS programs, including grants to assist seniors with housing and transportation, and $8,000 in funds for the agency’s Heart Gallery, which connects foster care children with forever families, received $8,000 in PCF grant funding.

While supporting the needs of Jewish families remains a key tenet of the agency’s work in the community, Sandra said, “Our services don’t gauge religion.” We serve 37,000 unique individuals a year, some of whom are Jewish and others who are as diverse as our programs.”

Through its partnership with the Jewish Federation of Florida’s Gulf Coast, Gulf Coast JFCS provides services such as Holocaust survivor assistance, kosher meals, counseling and therapy, programs for kids, and support for local synagogues.

PCF Plants Seeds

Sandra cherishes her agency’s relationship with Pinellas Community Foundation. “PCF supports programs that align with our work, especially related to serving seniors,” she said. Most importantly, PCF guides Gulf Coast JFCS toward services that address a well-documented community need.

PCF supplies research and data that direct funds where they are most needed. According to Sandra, PCF “gives us the credibility and seeds that open doors to other funding sources so we can serve an even greater need.”

“Seeds from PCF — their investment and research — help extend our funding,” said Sandra, noting that a PCF grant and needs assessment study helped her agency attract AARP funds for a program assisting seniors isolated by the pandemic. Gulf Coast JFCS was able to augment its service to low-income seniors needing transportation, weekly welfare checks, housing, and companionship. “It was all part of PCF planting the seeds.”

For more information about Gulf Coast JFCS, call (727) 479-1800 or visit their website.

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