San Diego-area Chesed Home offers safety, Jewish life for mentally ill

Click photo to download. Caption: The downstairs of the independent living quarters of  Chesed Home at Hope Village. Credit: Aaron Traux.

By Donald H. Harrison/JNS.org

ESCONDIDO, Calif.—Now more than six months into operation, Chesed Home at Hope Village—a unique initiative in the San Diego area for people with mental illness—is drawing support from across the wide Jewish spectrum.

Chesed Home (www.chesedhome.org) currently serves three residents and has room for three more. Until recently, there were five residents in the home, but two “graduated” to independent living units on the same residential property operated by Hope Village, a non-profit agency founded under auspices of the San Diego County Jewish community.

Fern Siegel, a former president of the local Jewish Family Service (JFS) branch who continues to co-chair the social service agency’s Behavioral Health Committee, describes Chesed Home as the brainchild of Devorah and Jacob Shore, an Orthodox Jewish couple who desired for their adult relative and others with similar disabilities to be able to be cared for in a place that was safe and offered an atmosphere of dignity and Jewish values. Devorah Shore serves as co-chair of Hope Village’s advisory committee.

Click photo to download. Caption: The exterior of Chesed Home at Hope Village. Credit: Aaron Traux.

The 17,829-square-foot Hope Village (www.hope-village.com) in Escondido, Calif., currently has openings for a total of six more residents of either gender from ages 18-59 who have been diagnosed with such mental illnesses as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. There are mezuzot on doorposts throughout the homes; a Shabbat meal is served at Chesed Home every Friday night; the Jewish Federation of San Diego provided three years of innovation grants to help Chesed Home in its start-up phase; and a van for field trips was donated to the facility by Seacrest Village Retirement Communities, which is the official Jewish home for the aged in San Diego County.

Rabbi Lenore Bohm, who also serves as executive director of the Waters of Eden Community Mikvah and Educational Center, is spiritual advisor to the Chesed Home, helping to devise Jewish activities for its residents under a grant from the Leichtag Family Foundation. Recently, for example, Michael Gropper of Moishe House taught the residents to bake challah, and Bohm presided over a Shabbat dinner that she described as “absolutely delicious.”

Chesed Home residents are supervised by Program Director Shelle Wisdom-Lazar, who holds a Master’s Degree in social work, and a staff of six caregivers whose shifts are scheduled so that there is caregiver on premises 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Wisdom-Lazar is Jewish, as is staff member Malvina Vainer, a former Russian immigrant who loves to cook and also volunteers at the Jewish Gift Closet. While no prohibited foods like pork or lobster ever are served at Chesed Home, fully observant kashrut is not practiced, according to Siegel.

Wisdom-Lazar and Bohm express the hope that Chesed Home’s Jewish atmosphere can continue to be strengthened so that the residents feel more and more that they are part of the greater Jewish community.

Bohm said regular Shabbat dinners—with kippot, prayers, challah, and Shabbat music—are a good way to start. That can be augmented by building Chesed Home’s collection of Jewish music CDs and Jewish-themed movies. Residents can be encouraged to sample “the taste, the sight, the smell, and the hands-on feel of the holidays” by making something with their own hands, “not only food, but a sukkah in the fall or a seder plate for Pesach,” the rabbi said. “Anything that involves making something can be a very satisfying endeavor and makes the person feel connected to the holidays,” she said.

Wisdom-Lazar describes her job at the Chesed Home as essentially to help residents transition from dependence to independence. Careful not to identify residents by name so as not to breach confidentiality, Wisdom-Lazar offered some observations about Chesed Home programming.

“Basically, we provide services,” she said. “I am a social worker and so I meet with each resident when they first come in to determine what their goals are, what their interests are, what their capabilities are, and then we set out making some goals. The programming is really working toward independence in a million little ways, all day long.”

In some cases, the people who come to Chesed Home previously were in less desirable situations. For example, “someone might have been living on his own and really been struggling with his mental health symptoms, perhaps not feeding himself and really having a lot of difficulty getting his needs met and having some order to his life, and his parents would bring him here,” Wisdom-Lazar said.

“The first thing is to get that resident on a regular routine, asleep at night, awake during the day and doing productive activities during the day. … They begin to do chores around the house, eat three square meals plus two snacks during the day. They start doing their laundry, bathing at least every other day. So that is one scenario,” she said.

Another scenario, said the program director, is that “maybe they have been in a treatment facility from anywhere from six months to three years and they have received a lot of treatment, a lot of individual therapy, and their medication is stable with their symptoms relatively under control.” At such facilities, she said the residents’ jobs were their treatment, “but when they get here, they are done with that. They’ve moved on.”

In individualized programs, Chesed Home helps the residents to transition to a less formally structured existence. According to Wisdom-Lazar, “We can have them continue a day treatment program in the community two-three days a week because we don’t offer it here in the Home. The rest of the week we try to get him or her to the next level. Are they going to go to school? Are they going to do volunteer work in the community? Are they going to get a part-time job?”

Wisdom-Lazar said the residents “have different strengths and different areas of challenge.”

“One might be social and be able to knock on doors and apply for jobs, and another might be unable to talk to anybody. It’s very different for each person,” she said.

Residents are free to come and go as they please, and they may withdraw from the program whenever they or their family decides.

Wisdom-Lazar said the goal of the Chesed Home staff is to help the residents be able to thrive without them, in essence to make themselves increasingly irrelevant in that resident’s life. She said that in evaluating residents’ progress, she takes note of “if they are doing everything on their own, if they are getting to their day treatment program, if they are taking their medications without prompting… if they are managing their money really well.” 

“In fact, we do a trial where we give them a whole month’s allowance up front, and we will see how they do,” she said. “When it comes down to it, if we feel that we are not providing anything for them any more, that they could do just as well on their own, then I will say that.”

Chesed Home residents whom Wisdom-Lazar believes are sufficiently independent to leave the board-and-care home to live on their own may desire to move to the well-appointed and far less expensive, semi-private accommodations located farther from the street on Hope Village’s long rectangular property. These homes have bedrooms for three people. Rent per person is $800 per month, including utilities and an Internet connection. Hope Village requires that its independent-living residents regularly meet with an active case manager, whose services are provided through JFS.

Stacey Saenz, a JFS intensive psychiatric caseworker, said meetings typically last up to two hours a week with each client in the independent living facility. “We really create a program catering to what their needs are, to what goals they have, and to what they can work on developing to become even more independent,” she said.

“A lot of it is emotional support,” Saenz added. “It is being consistent and holding them accountable for the goals that they are working on. We also are involved in helping them develop healthy practices in their daily living, whether it be health care, diet, nutrition… getting involved in exercise… or, perhaps, if they are lonely getting them connected with people.  If they have vocational goals, it is helping them to work in that direction, whether it be retraining, or volunteering, or part-time work.”

Saenz said members of the Jewish community could be of great assistance if they would extend to her clients volunteer opportunities or internships. “I wish the community could understand that despite their illness they have so much to offer,” she said.

Click photo to download. Caption: Shabbat and Hanukkah items at Chesed Home at Hope Village. Credit: Aaron Traux.

Severe mental illness often strikes people at college age, in some cases when they are in graduate school and are just about to launch themselves on their future, explained Saenz. “These people are very bright, they have skills, and they are ready to start getting back to work,” she said.

Residents in the independent living quarters are welcome to join the residents of Chesed Home for Shabbat dinners, if they so desire, Saenz and Wisdom-Lazar said.

In one instance, said Wisdom-Lazar, parents arranged for a resident in individual living quarters to take all his meals at Chesed Home, so he wouldn’t be required suddenly to cook for himself. The parents liked this arrangement because that way, someone would see him on a regular basis and could alert them if any problems seemed to be developing.

Currently, Hope Village is raising funds to purchase the $1.25 million property that has another year on its lease. Siegel expresses the hope that a “lead donor” will be found soon in order to demonstrate to the landlords that Hope Village will be able to make the purchase.

At the same time, Hope Village also is looking for donations to defray the cost for residents to receive room, board, and full-time care at Chesed Home, which is currently charging rent of $3,900 per month. This is more than many families may be able to afford, Siegel acknowledges, saying she would like to bring the costs down, but that thus far fundraising efforts have focused on obtaining and furnishing the property and paying staff salaries.

Donald Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World, where this story was first published. He may be contacted at donald.harrison@sdjewishworld.com.

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Posted on March 9, 2014 and filed under Features, U.S..