Helping themselves

Feeding the needy is a mitzva. But perhaps an even greater gift is helping them break out of the cycle of poverty.

In April, ahead of Pessah, The Jerusalem Post examined the dire state of the nation's food banks, which - like the people they help - would cease to function without assistance. These organizations undoubtedly provide a vital service, but what is the most effective form of charity? Now, at Shavuot, as the Jewish people commemorates an epic event - the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Law that would nurture and sustain the Jews throughout the millennia - we take a look at some nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing another kind of long-term help and guidance: teaching people to become independent. TO THOSE unfamiliar with Orly Attias's personal story, her sparse three-room apartment might not look like much - the living room's bare white walls and peeling paint are vaguely hidden behind two very worn, mismatched couches and a small old-fashioned television; the kitchen comprises a single electric ring, a toaster oven and a miniature refrigerator, while the two bedrooms contain a combination of three sofa beds and a hastily assembled, plastic wardrobe, barely big enough for one person's clothes, let alone for Attias and her three sons. It's not much, admits the 36-year-old, who moved to Beersheba as a teenager, but the fact that she and her children are not living on the streets is, for her, an enormous achievement. "Two years ago I was in a terrible way," admits Attias, whose upbeat and open demeanor belies the tragedy of her situation. "I lost the apartment we were living in and got no help from my family, so we ended up having to stay with a good friend. "It's a situation anyone can find themselves in. But a person cannot sit around feeling sorry for themselves. They have to deal with their situation, set an example for their children. Money doesn't fall from the sky and accepting charity all the time just doesn't feel right; a person needs to be able to stand on her own two feet." With the help of her friend, Attias, who divorced her children's father several years ago because he is "mentally unstable," made contact with a Beersheba nonprofit called Shoulder-to-Shoulder, which matches low-income families with stronger socioeconomic ones to act as mentors in all aspects of life. "I spoke to Ilan [Maor, the organization's director and only paid employee] and told him that I needed financial help," recalls Attias. "He asked me some questions about my situation and then said he couldn't help me unless I helped myself first... unless I went out and found a job. "I think he gave me the push I needed at that time because I realized then that I wanted to be independent, I didn't want others to take care of me or my children." A few weeks later Attias found part-time cleaning work. As well as earning money to supplement the income support and other state benefits she receives as a single mother, Attias also became part of a growing number of people who - rather than passively accepting government handouts or assistance from one of the country's more than 10,000 charities - have made the decision to actively seek the tools needed to stand on their own. "To survive in life you can't just sit around watching television and eating popcorn," she says. "Life is not a picnic and the only way for a person to improve his situation is to draw on his own strengths and show initiative." "I called Ilan back and told him that I had found work, and he said he would be willing to help me," remembers Attias, describing how together with representatives from the organization she took a closer look at her life and outlined the areas that needed to be addressed immediately. A few months after finding work, Attias was assigned government housing in one of Beersheba's older neighborhoods and has been living in the apartment for the past eight months. "I know it's not ideal," gestures Attias at the room where we are sitting. "Last week a pipe in the bathroom exploded and slugs came crawling out of the drains. I called the landlord to fix it but he never came, so I had to mix up some plaster and fix it myself. Sometimes you can't just wait for other people do things for you." GOVERNMENT FIGURES from January estimated that more than 1,631,000 people were living below the poverty line last year, and with the current economic crisis turning into the worst recession in the past 30 years, experts believe that number is likely to rise significantly by the end of 2009. At the same time donations and financial aid to both government and nongovernment organizations providing assistance to those trapped by economic difficulties is slowly dwindling, leaving more and more NGOs looking for creative solutions to keep their doors open and help the weaker segments of the population help themselves. "I believe that the third sector has to operate with more of a business-sector mind-set," says businessman Yehuda Amsalem, founder and chairman of Shoulder-to-Shoulder, which currently works with roughly 60 low-income families and has trained an additional 30 stronger socioeconomic families to provide them with emotional support and practical advice. "It can't just be about give, give, give, there also has to be a point where the investments also need to see growth. "A person who makes a donation wants to know that his money is going to make a change, that there will be some sort of improvement in the situation. In the business world, if money is invested but there is no growth, that business would be closed down." "Of course, not everyone wants to help themselves," continues Amsalem, who was recently asked by the government to expand his organization's activities to include seven more localities in addition to Beersheba and Ashkelon where it is currently active. "There are some families that you just cannot help, some people who will just stay needy all their lives." According to Amsalem, who worked in the nonprofit sector for many years before turning to the business world, only about 40 percent of low-income families can be helped to help themselves. At Shoulder-to-Shoulder, which a recent outside assessment suggests has been 95% effective, a critical assessment is made of the candidates to determine whether they seriously want to become fully contributing members of society. To highlight the organization's "From Dependence to Independence" motto, Amsalem uses the example of one woman and her family who he guided from financial difficulties to sustainability. "Someone had seen her rifling through the trash looking for food. They were extremely shocked because she is such an intelligent and well-presented woman. She'd immigrated from Europe and had a fairly good job, but a few years after arriving here her husband left her and stuck her with his debts. When I met her, the bank had been taking almost her entire salary to pay back those debts, leaving her with only NIS 200 a month to survive on." "As her mentor, I sat down with her and together we identified each problem and prioritized. I heard how the bank had been pressuring her, how her neighbors verbally attacked her for not paying the communal housekeeping fees, how her electricity had been cut off and how she could not afford to get her eldest daughter's emergency dental work." The first step, says Amsalem, was to accompany the woman to the bank, where they persuaded the manager to devise a more sympathetic payment scheme; next was to increase the woman's monthly income. "She had a good job but was not earning enough. We looked at her skills and found that she spoke fluent English, so we suggested that she take on extra work as a private English teacher and that increased her salary by NIS 2,000 a month." Next, Shoulder-to-Shoulder provided the family with the funds to pay for the daughter's dental treatment. "It was show of good faith. We like the families to see that if they take a critical step forward, then we'll take the next step and hopefully that will encourage them to take another step, which we can match until we help build them up to a level that they can be independent." AMSALEM SAYS the ideas behind Shoulder-to-Shoulder grow out of his own experiences working in the nonprofit sector. "I had begun to notice that the number of NGOs was steadily growing and instead of bringing down the number of needy people, the problem was actually worsening," he explains. "I realized that although the tradition of charity and giving to others was a wonderful thing, in practice it was not directly solving the problems of those people in need. Rather, the needy people were becoming passive; they were just sitting at home waiting for someone else to bring food to them." Frustrated at the status quo, Amsalem resolved to find another path of treatment for struggling families, with the main goal being to take them out of the poverty cycle, put them on the road to financial recovery and help them find long-term independence. "I sat with educational experts, social workers and businessmen," he says. "I asked them how they thought we could help these people." Eventually, Amsalem pinpointed the major roadblocks that were stopping these families from becoming financially independent, and he decided that Shoulder-to-Shoulder would focus on four main areas - ensuring that the families had an acceptable quality of life; encouraging them to be financially responsible; helping them with educational needs to allow the second generation to break out of the poverty trap; and, perhaps the key, helping them to find employment. To implement this holistic approach to treating poverty, Amsalem decided the best way was to engage stronger families from the area to act as mentors to counsel the weaker families out of their despair. "The mentor family comes in as friends, not as outside professionals, and that is what a family in distress really, really needs," he says, highlighting that this is the most important element of Shoulder-to-Shoulder's work. "Of course, there is a professional staff that matches up the two families and initially helps them through the process, but really it is the regular personal contact between the people that makes this program work. "In many cases we are talking about people who are chronically unemployed and who have not been contributing members of society for some time. It is sometimes very difficult for them to get back on track initially, and a simple phone call is often enough to get them up and out the door to work." FOR LIRAZ, 35, a single mother of four who became part of Shoulder-to-Shoulder's program two years ago after she found herself in "a very difficult economic situation," it was that single phone call asking her how she was feeling that helped to jolt her back to reality and take hold of her life's reins. "I had been so busy helping the children settle in and adjust to our new life that I did not take any time to think about myself," says Liraz, who made aliya with her children four years ago from Azerbaijan. "Everyone needs support at one time or another and that phone call asking me how I was doing or inviting us to join another family at festival time made a huge difference. I really don't believe that receiving a food basket each month is enough, there also needs to be a personal connection that is very important. "Perhaps it was down to not understanding the way things work in Israel or maybe I was just tired and disorganized, but I forgot to sign for my income support one week and by the time I realized, it was too late for them to issue me with my check. We'd only been in the country for a year at the time and I suddenly found myself with no money for a whole month, four children to feed, and I had nothing. The situation just seemed to spiral out of control from there." Unsure of whom to turn to for help, Liraz contacted her aliya coordinator at the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, who suggested she ask Shoulder-to-Shoulder for help. "They did everything for me," says Liraz. "They helped me to find cheap furniture, gave us a library card and paid for my children to join extra-curricular activities." While Liraz appreciates the practical help, it was the emotional support that helped her turn her life around. "It was the feeling that there was someone else out there who really cared," she says. "I was deeply depressed during that time and did not want to talk to anyone, but [my mentor] called me all the time, he visited us and spent time with the children." In addition, when Liraz told him she had to get out of the house but had never worked before, he helped her go through the motions of finding a job, she says. "It took us a few months to find the right job, but now I have it and love it," says Liraz, who has been working as a saleswoman in the same store for the past two years. "He never put on any pressure on me and that helped too. "I don't know what I would have done if that help had not come exactly when it did. There is a saying, 'A spoon is only useful if it is given to you at the right time, exactly when you are eating your food.' I can honestly say that is what happened to me and that's how I managed to turn my life around." After getting back on track and staying there for the last few years, Liraz says she is determined to put something back into the organization that helped her. "I've learnt a lot from the Shoulder-to-Shoulder process. I recognize that I made mistakes and now I know how to make sure that others don't make the same mistakes I made."