As the largest national Jewish sponsor of federally subsidized senior housing in the United States, the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services (CSS) mission is to provide housing for low-income seniors in need, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability. The CSS network comprises 42 buildings in 27 communities, serving 8,000 residents every year.
Once a B’nai B’rith senior apartment building opens its doors, a lot of effort goes into making it more than just a place to live. The buildings are more than just “bricks and mortar,” they are a community with support and activities. Along with dedicated staff, volunteers are the key to helping make the building a home, for all that live there.
Each building was initially the vision of a small group of B’nai B’rith members that realized there was a need in the community for affordable senior housing. Forming a volunteer board of directors, they oversee the entire building process from beginning to end. Once the building has opened, the local board of directors does not manage the building, per se, but oversees the operation of the facility by hiring building management, which is no small task. It is the volunteers of the board who are ultimately responsible to the residents, and to HUD.
Most boards are comprised of approximately 15 members from the greater community, with terms of service averaging two to three years. The board meets monthly, or every other month. However, most board members spend much more time in their board role than just attending a meeting. The officers of the board are the official face of the building, and, therefore, hold a lot of responsibility for a volunteer. They are the ones reviewing and approving documents with HUD, making sure there is an annual audit and signing financial documents.
A lot is demanded of the board members, and they do not take this responsibility lightly. Each board member has been recruited for their expertise. An accountant is able to advise the board regarding the monthly financial statements, and an attorney can help the rest of the board understand a legal proceeding. A great source for prospective board members is former staffers that have retired or taken a new position. These types of members are a great way for the board to understand issues from a management perspective, as well as making balanced decisions.
Although all of the buildings were originally sponsored by B’nai B’rith, there is a very diverse community of residents. Events that are held at the property are most successful when they reflect that particular resident base. The board of directors may sponsor a Seder over Passover or build a Sukkah during Sukkot. In either case, the event is open to ALL residents. They also sponsor holiday parties that may include lighting the menorah and decorating a Christmas tree, holding a Chinese New Year’s celebration, or honoring veterans on Russian Victory Day in May.
Beyond the members of the board, there are many more opportunities for individuals to volunteer and provide programming for the residents. One building has volunteers that run a fused glass jewelry making class, in which the residents make and then are able to sell as a fundraiser for the Resident Association. Most buildings have partnered with local schools—elementary, secondary, high school and college-age volunteers—to provide intergenerational programming. This may range from playing games, to dance performances, or even a joint sewing class: whatever makes for a fun program. The sky is the limit!
The largest group of volunteers in the building would be the residents themselves. From the volunteer floor monitors who check up on their neighbors and answer questions, to arranging book clubs, movie screenings, bingo—whatever the residents are interested in attending, the possibilities are endless! After all, they more than anyone know what activities the residents will attend.
The best way to make sure the residents of each building are involved in the building activities is through the Resident Association. Open to ALL residents, these associations generally conduct monthly meetings, provide programming and events for the residents, as well as work with management and the board of directors to solve problems or to disseminate information to the residents. It might be smokers not using the designated smoking area, or people not cleaning up after their pets, both of which are concerns for both management and the residents. Working together, representatives from the board, management and the Resident Association helps to create an atmosphere of mutual understanding and cooperation.
We at the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services are very supportive of the Resident Associations, and provide training to the officers of each association at our Resident Leadership Retreat. Held every other summer, two officers of each association attend a week long retreat to learn how to be better leaders. They also share ideas and network, as well as have some fun, since the Retreat is held at a summer youth camp while the camp is in session.
Volunteers do make a difference!
This Expert Analysis piece is dedicated to a longtime volunteer that we lost this past March. Gloria Miller, better known as “Gloria from Peoria,” served on the board of directors and was the volunteer activities director of the Sam J. Stone B’nai B’rith Covenant House Apartments in Peoria, Ill. Gloria also served on the board of directors of the B’nai B’rith Apartments of Deerfield Beach, Fla., and was the longtime chair of the B’nai B’rith Resident Leadership Retreat.
She was my mentor, and I learned so much from her. May her memory serve as a blessing.
Janel Doughten is the associate director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services, focusing on the subsidized senior housing program. She has been with B’nai B’rith for 23 years, and looks forward to leading the 15th Resident Leadership Retreat later this year. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
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