A Question of Need

As a young boy with a serious disability, Frank Wexler spent most of his first 10 years in the hospital, undergoing 22 operations. Upon his release, Wexler was anxious to make up for lost time. One of the first things he did was to get a driver’s license. Wexler’s mother, who was overprotective and could not believe he had the ability to do anything quite that daring, almost did not let him obtain one.

"It’s understandable," Wexler says. "Most parents with a kid with a bad disability are overprotective. It’s extremely difficult to handle, it’s expensive, there’s a number of hospitalizations. That’s why no matter what the family constellation, it’s beneficial to the child to have a mentor who is also disabled."

Wexler, who not only learned to drive but went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from NYU, is the coordinator of Jewish Big Brothers of Los Angeles’ (JBB) Disabilities Services. The disabilities program matches disabled men with disabled boys, regardless of whether the child has both parents at home.

This little-known offshoot of the larger JBB program has been in existence for 11 years. Since its inception, between 40 to 50 matches between disabled men and boys have been made.

Unlike the larger JBB program, which matches men with boys who have no father in the home, the disability program is unique in that each disabled child will be matched with an adult with a similar disability. Wexler believes that only with a personal insight of that disability can the big brother serve as an appropriate role model.

"Someone like me, who has lived in a wheelchair, knows what it’s like to be in a wheelchair and has gone through so much stuff that it’s very easy to make a connection with the kids," Wexler says.

"Someone who isn’t disabled and who doesn’t understand — for instance, what it’s like to go to the bathroom in a wheelchair — can hurt the kid by trying to be helpful. The issue has been finding an individual interested in doing that."

Judith Miller, director of social work services at JBB, says that JBB is short 48 matches in the regular program — with disabilities services it’s even tougher to find a match. For one thing, it’s very important to find someone who isn’t angry or bitter due to his disability, in order to make the match the healthiest one possible for the little brother. And, two, society doesn’t always look favorably on the disabled.

"This small component of a larger program was developed to also give the opportunity to disabled men, because often they aren’t seen as being appropriate mentors, but why not?" Miller asks. "They can role model behaviors as they have moved through some of these experiences."

Wexler gives an example of the benefits of role modeling by talking about one of his most successful matches, between big brother Jeremy Newman and little brother Adam Lawrence.

When Wexler read an article about Newman in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago, he immediately called him. Here was a man confined to a wheelchair after falling 100 feet to the ground during a parachute stunt gone wrong. Newman was a triathlete — swimming, biking and running — motivational speaker and personal trainer. Wexler could see that he already had the key ingredient for a good big brother: a positive attitude. Perhaps he would be interested in being a big brother for Lawrence, a boy with cerebral palsy, who was also in a wheelchair.

Newman was delighted with the idea. When Newman met Lawrence, they immediately hit it off. Newman started taking Lawrence to places he had never been, and started doing things with him that Lawrence was never allowed to do before. For instance, when they went to Disneyland, Newman made it clear that he wasn’t going to help Lawrence navigate around Toontown.

"There were things at Disneyland that were difficult, like going downhill. Of course Adam was fearful — he had never been there before. But I told him, ‘I’ll see you at the bottom,’ and he knew I wasn’t going to come and save him. Of course, he did it. By giving him an opportunity to do that on his own, it made him stronger."

The match between Newman and Lawrence has been so successful that Newman eventually moved into a guest house behind Lawrence’s home in Encino, in part to make it easier for the family to attend some of his sporting events, and in part to make it easier for Newman to be with Lawrence two to three times a week, sometimes just to hang out. Usually, though, Newman is thinking of new challenges for Lawrence, like attending Earth Day, which was held at a park, on grass, where navigating a wheelchair is a huge challenge.

"I’m trying to instill the mental attitude that there are no obstacles, only challenges. I try to give Adam an opportunity to do as much as he can on his own in order for him to feel empowered by his own ability."

Not all big brother matches are this successful, but Miller explains that many, in the regular program, as well as this one, go beyond the required commitment — at least a year and up until the age of 18. She believes that this is due to the carefully screened assessments JBB employs.

"We hire only professional social workers, thus, we make good critical assessments — background checks, FBI, DMV, a series of five interviews, on average; we talk to them about their childhood, use of drugs, sex lives, etc. Usually guys who want to do bad things are put off by this process."

Wexler makes it clear that above all they are looking for healthy, positive role models for the child.

"If a parent of a disabled child calls and asks for a big brother, we will work hard to find a match for them, regardless of their disability. It’s a question of need."

Watching Big Brother

In the culmination of what has been a tumultuous year for the Jewish Big Brothers (JBB) of Los Angeles, Executive Director Jeff Kahn stepped down from his position last week to serve as interim director until a replacement is found.

The decision followed an executive board meeting on Jan. 15.

Since he began at the agency in April 2000, Kahn’s supporters credit him with turning the agency around financially; his critics have accused him of tarnishing the 87-year-old agency’s sterling reputation for social services.

Jewish Big Brothers currently serves more than 150 children who have lost a father figure (most commonly through divorce or death) by matching them with Jewish men for biweekly meetings. The agency boasts a success rate of relationships lasting twice as long as the national average. The national average for Big Brother matches is two years; JBB’s often last for four.

Through their programs at Camp Max Strauss and their Sports Buddies programs, the agency estimates they affect the lives of nearly 2,000 children each year. There are currently 50 boys and girls on the waiting list.

Kahn’s direction of the agency caused grievances to be filed against him with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 800. Brad Rosenberg, head of the agency’s board, acknowledged that while "Jeff may not be a warm and fuzzy guy," his business-minded approach to the agency has improved efficiencies and helped with cost reductions, putting the agency in better fiscal shape and enabling it to offer services to more children.

"While we’ve made significant progress with the reorganization of Jewish Big Brothers/Camp Max Straus, I believe that the interests of the agency are best served by my returning to interim status," Kahn said. "In this way, I can more effectively respond to the needs of our board of trustees."

Kahn, a CPA and attorney, was brought into the agency by Sheri Bluebond, a board member who had worked with Kahn in the past to fix troubled companies. "We need to be accountable to our donors," Kahn told The Journal in a meeting.

Kahn’s tenure has resulted in a massive upheaval in the JJB social worker staff, whose ranks have been reduced 40 percent over the past year through voluntary and nonvoluntary layoffs.

One accusation Kahn has leveled against the social workers is that they carried caseloads of only 15-20 cases, while the national average hovers between 50-60. Kahn also said that before his arrival, there was no accountability process, cases were listed as active by social workers who had not had contact with their clients in over two years; that social workers kept inaccurate records, and that his authority was rejected by the social worker staff, members of which largely hold master of social work degrees (a rarity among Big Brother agencies, which often only require a bachelor’s degree for case workers) because he had no background in social work.

The social workers say their case load reflects the comprehensive service JBB provides. While a social worker may only serve 15-20 cases, each of those cases often involves the management of three relationships: the big brother, the parent (who is often given individual therapy) and the child, resulting in an actual load of 45-60 individual cases each social worker must manage.

If there was an increase in the caseload, argued social workers at the agency who requested anonymity, the quality of social services would decrease dramatically, affecting the unusually high success rate of the program.

The turnover of social work staff also worried many of the social workers involved because of the particular vulnerabilities of the children in the program, who have issues with loss and rejection. "The children we serve are particularly sensitive to the changing of adults in thier lives," said one social worker who requested annonymity.

Exact figures for the operating budget and estimated debt of the agency before Kahn’s tenure were not given to the Jewish Journal by JBB.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel though, as many hail the November hiring of Judith Miller as the new director of social work. Miller is a graduate of Columbia University’s social work program and is a veteran in both social service agencies and management. A favorite of many of the social workers who have worked with the JBB program, she is also seen as an effective and efficient manager. There is hope that she might be able to provide the balance between financial integrity and effective social work that the agency needs.

"It’s a wonderful program that really changes people’s lives," said a social worker who left the agency last year, "The program just needs to decide what its priorities are and what it wants to be in the future."