November 17, 2018

Etta Israel Center gets help from new partner

When the Etta Israel Center was hit by the recent economic downturn, its leaders weren’t satisfied with simply surviving the crisis, as they sought to provide services, including group homes, to local people with special needs. They wanted to grow.

Now, thanks to a recent merger with the East Coast nonprofit OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, the North Hollywood-based organization hopes to do just that.

“We could open up homes for at least another 100 people tomorrow. We have that many people waiting,” said Sharon Levine, co-president of the new joint board of directors that will oversee Etta. “Now, together, we can go to certain funding sources … and now that we’re a national organization, they’re interested in us. Before, they were not interested in us.”

On Nov. 14, officials from both organizations will gather at the California Science Center for Etta’s annual gala dinner to celebrate the merger, which was completed Sept. 18, and to honor the group’s cohort of young professionals. The joint board will have its first meeting the following day.

Now 19 years old, Etta is the only Jewish agency providing group homes for people with special needs in the Los Angeles area, according to Dr. Michael Held, founding executive director.

It operates four homes — the most recent of which opened in August — that serve 24 residents. Etta also provides adult case management, a summer day camp and year-round programming. It runs a self-contained classroom for students with learning disabilities and has an outreach program targeting the local Iranian community.

Its new partner is much larger in terms of scale and services. OHEL, which means “tent” in Hebrew, is based in New York and has offices in New Jersey and South Florida. Founded as a foster-care agency in 1969, it has grown to include help for senior citizens, mental-health patients and, like Etta, individuals with developmental disabilities and other special needs, said CEO David Mandel.

The two organizations were brought together when Etta became frustrated in its efforts to expand and began searching for help.

“There’s a long waiting list of people who contact us on a regular basis looking for a solution. … To me, that’s a crisis. It may not be so much of a crisis when the individual is 21, but it becomes a crisis when that person is 40, because, correspondingly, the parents are aging,” said Held, who has a doctorate in psychology. “The question that we came to experience is how do we keep growing? Four years ago, we realized that we kind of hit a wall.”

The country’s economic meltdown and cuts in government funding didn’t help, while the need for services continued to mount. What began as a consultation with OHEL grew, over the course of a year, into the decision to merge, Held said.

For Etta, a $2.5 million agency, it meant access to a bigger, more experienced organization with a knowledge base and infrastructure that could help in government relations and other important areas.

“They have a lot of expertise where we lack expertise,” Held said. “They’re the largest in the country, so they understand scale. They understand what it’s like to work with people who are in residential care over a lifetime.”

For OHEL, which operates a camp on a national level, the merger offers an entree to the West Coast and a chance to collaborate with another lay-driven organization that shares the same values, desire for growth and dedication to serving those with disabilities, Mandel said.

“We have been approached over the years by numerous organizations with the concept of consultation or a merger or to co-brand with OHEL,” he said, adding that the idea of a merger was never really entertained until now. “This made sense. It was an organization that had a vision that was similar to ours [and] provided some services that we have been providing.”

The new board, with co-presidents representing each organization, is structured to include seven members selected by Etta and eight by OHEL. However, if the question of changing Etta’s name or selling its property ever came up, any decision would require the approval of a majority of the Etta board members, Levine said.

Both sides agree that there is no plan at the present time to expand the scope of what Etta does to match OHEL’s.

“In the short term, what’s most important is to continue Etta’s focus on its current population,” Mandel said. “We certainly are not looking to bring services that are not Etta’s current focus or that in any way will diminish what its current mission is.”

Instead, Etta remains focused on pursuing proposals now pending approval by the Westside Regional Center and the Frank D. Lanterman Regional Center. They would enable Etta to become a vendor for providing customized, independent living skills and supportive living services to adult clients. That could mean anything from helping them use transportation and navigate the community to teaching them how to bank or do chores. 

There are secular programs that take on similar challenges, but it’s not the same as making it a Jewish undertaking, Held said.

“It’s really identical or parallel to the same way the Jewish community has invested huge sums of money in Jewish day school education and Jewish camping,” he said. “Being part of Jewish programs, or programs under Jewish auspices, is something that builds identity, builds self-worth and adds value to the Jewish community.”

Levine said the merger has re-energized and rejuvenated many aspects of Etta, strengthening it for a long and promising future.

“I’m very excited,” she said. “I feel like this is what’s actually going to ensure the longevity of the organization. With the backing of OHEL, we are absolutely here to stay. … Now we have the assurance that we will definitely be able to keep those homes open until every single resident doesn’t need them anymore.”