Photo Credit: COJO Flatbush
COJO Flatbush President Moshe Zakheim

We know all too well how Covid-19 upended the normal daily existence to which most of us had become accustomed. As a social services agency that deals closely with some of the most vulnerable segments of the community, COJO Flatbush was deemed “essential” by the City of New York and therefore has remained open and operational throughout the pandemic. But COJO administrators had to curtail some programs and change course with others, all while meeting government-mandated health and safety guidelines and keeping a watchful eye on the health of COJO staffers.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on the services we provide,” said COJO Flatbush CEO Louis Welz. “And we weren’t going to let the terrible reality of Covid-19 stop us from continuing to do so. We knew we’d have to make some hard and painful decisions while implementing changes and taking new approaches, but the main thing was for us to be able to keep serving the public.”

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COJO Flatbush President Moshe Zakheim described the agency as “a buffer against personal misfortune and hard times for so many people,” adding that the notion of COJO not being available for the community, even temporarily, “is simply unthinkable. We can – we must – never take a break in fulfilling our mandate.”

Initially, said COJO Flatbush Director of Social Services Shulamis Shapiro, a prime concern was the agency’s holiday food distributions, on which so many local families had come to depend and which would now also serve as a lifeline to those suffering from the pandemic’s effect on employment and family income. But with careful planning, which included social distancing, wearing of facemasks and gloves, plenty of hand sanitizer, and avoiding close proximity when making drop-offs at the homes of recipients, the distributions – Passover, followed by Shavuos, and more recently Rosh Hashanah – all went smoothly.

Another concern was the status of COJO’s adult education classes. Once the seriousness of the pandemic became clear in March, COJO moved all courses online, with students and instructors interacting virtually rather than in the usual classroom venues. The arrangement included the adult computer courses – Basic, Advanced Excel and Introduction to QuickBooks, and Microsoft Office Specialist – as well as HSE and ABE (High School Equivalency and Adult Basic Education) classes.

Since then, three groups have received their certificates, with a fourth graduation set for December. Honoring the grads meant coming up with something different from the usual practice of holding a group celebration with a guest speaker and refreshments. “Instead,” said Welz, “we prepare congratulatory letters along with the certificates and include sweet treats for our graduates to enjoy. The graduates receive the special packets hand-delivered to their homes.”

Caroline Edri, COJO’s Director of Adult Education, said the “intense dedication of our students to improving their lives made us all the more determined to ensure that our adult education program would continue uninterrupted.”

COJO also had to recalibrate its approach to programs and events for seniors. “There’s a unique feeling you get when working with seniors,” said Naomi Shapiro, Volunteers Coordinator of COJO’s Pikus Senior Enrichment Programs. “We want to make life easier for them, to provide services, to offer companionship, and to give them the opportunity to take part in social activities. So it really hit us hard when we had to suspend our home visitations, arts and crafts parties, and seasonal luncheons.”

Of particular concern to COJO’s Zakheim is how debilitating and dangerous isolation can be for seniors, especially those who live alone. “Just knowing there are people ready to help, to talk, to check in on a regular basis, is a tonic to their souls. Our number-one priority was to maintain constant contact with our seniors despite the necessity of social distancing.”

Close connections have continued uninterrupted, said Shapiro, “with Senior Programs staff members and social work interns calling each of our clients weekly to see if there’s anything COJO can help them with or just to chat. And eligible seniors still enjoy free transportation provided by COJO for trips to the doctor, shopping, or visiting family members, and we help with errands, ordinary household repairs, and coping with the unexpected – such as delivering Personal Protective Equipment during the pandemic.”

No doubt the pandemic’s most significant blow to COJO was its effect on the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which necessitated the laying off of several much-valued staffers. But when the city decided to launch a smaller-scale five-week online program – Summer Bridge 2020 – COJO came through once again. “We’ve long been New York’s largest SYEP provider, each year placing thousands of students from every religious, racial, and ethnic background in suitable summer jobs,” said COJO Flatbush Director of Youth Employment Mordechai Kruger. “I’m happy to say that this year was no different; once again we were the program’s largest provider, even with a drastically different set of circumstances and relatively little time to prepare.”

And then there was the Census. Selected by the city to participate in the NYC Census 2020 initiative – created to help ensure that New York receive its fair share of federal funding for vital services – COJO Flatbush was on the front lines as Census officials were forced by the pandemic to rethink and replace long-planned strategies. Even against this backdrop of unexpected adversity, COJO staffers made thousands of phone calls to neighborhood residents, inquiring whether they’d filled out their Census forms, encouraging those who hadn’t to go ahead and do so, and assisting anyone who needed help filling out the form online. COJO also distributed flyers, leaflets, and wall posters to stores and organizations, included Census information in each of its food distribution deliveries, and hosted and assisted Federal Census workers who set up tables outside COJO’s offices on Ave. M several hours a week to engage with passersby.

“The Census,” said Social Services Director Shapiro, “is something all of us at COJO take very seriously, because an accurate count maximizes the funding the government provides, which in turn fuels our ability to provide programs and services to the community.”

In addition to all of the above, COJO’s long-running communal support systems – financial and business counseling, benefits and entitlements navigation, housing advocacy, etc. – functioned without missing a beat.

“Personally, I’m not someone who’s easily satisfied,” said CEO Welz, “because I always feel we can do even more. But considering the unprecedented circumstances, I think anyone associated with COJO Flatbush should feel good about what we managed to do these past several months, even when much of the city was shut down. It gives life to the words of our organizational motto: Help really starts here.”

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