A Safety Net Of Her Own

Assistant Managing Editor
On any given day, you can find Jackie Ebron answering the calls of the most desperate New Yorkers, navigating through despair, hunger, poverty and illness to try to restore some calm and dignity to their lives. “When I came in this morning, I was faced with an elderly mother and daughter under the threat of eviction,” says Ebron in an interview at the offices of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in Lower Manhattan, where she is in charge of crisis intervention. “The mother is in her 90s, fell down a flight of stairs, broke many bones. The daughter is in her 60s and brain damaged. The marshal was at their house to lock them out. “We had to get them in protective services to see if they could make decisions on their own.” On another day, it was a jobless man who was six months behind on his rent. “I told him he was entitled to Social Security disability because he’s clinically depressed,” Ebron said. “ He can’t put his clothes on to look for a job.” While these are more typical cases for a social service case load, Ebron’s office has lately been faced with a new clientele as the economy collapses. “In the last two months our population has turned into the working poor,” says Ebron. And the worst, she fears, is yet to come. “In January and February there will be layoffs,” she predicts. “Homes foreclosed, people not making a second mortgage ... And the issue is bigger than that. These people losing their jobs were assisting their parents. If they’re not taking care of one family, they can’t take care of the senior.” That domino effect of misfortune makes for a stressful horizon for an agency that must do more with less in the face of city, state and federal budget cuts. Met Council serves more than 100,000 people each year through its network of 25 local community councils, including 3,000 frail elderly every day. The key to her job, says Ebron, has always been helping people help themselves. “When you work in crisis intervention, people come to you when they’re at their lowest tide,” she says. “Part of your job is to take away the cobwebs and give them a clear sense of where to go. Not to solve problems but give them a sense of direction to solve their own problems, which is what they want to do. “I told someone the other day he was entitled to food stamps. He always thought, two people working, you’re not entitled. Now they see they’re entitled.” But even with food stamps and other stipends, Ebron increasingly sees that with rising costs clients aren’t getting enough to eat. “More people are running out of food in the third week of the month. The money for food is just not making it. I have people taking meat out of their meals, and forget about fresh produce. They’re not getting the right nourishment. If they don’t eat right, they get sick and can’t work.” Cases are referred to her office through the system of JCC’s and councils of Jewish organizations (COJOs) throughout the city, which means her clientele is predominantly Jewish, though no one is turned away. Elected officials also make referrals, as do doctors and good Samaritans. “It could be a pharmacist who noticed that a customer is not filling prescriptions, and is probably cutting the medicine in half, which is dangerous.” Lucy Rodriguez, 58, a disabled woman who was mugged on the way home from an emergency room visit in Queens in September, says she was rejected by numerous other social service agencies before Ebron took her in, gave her the MetroCards she needed to travel and $50 to get her through to her next Social Security check. “I asked, ‘Do I have to be Jewish for you to help me,’ and she said no,” says Rodriguez, her voice cracking, in a phone interview. “She saved my life.” Sometimes clients are in such bad shape they have to be fed, or have their prescriptions filled, before they can even be screened for services. “First we take care of their needs, then we ask how come you’re here,” says Ebron, who fears that officials faced with budget cuts don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions. “I don’t think they’re looking at the big picture of how many families they’re going to destroy. Even the rise in the transit fare ... $3 on a regular bus, Access-A-Ride going up? How does someone on a fixed income manage?” Ebron, 58, the eldest of seven children, began caring for the needy around her as a child growing up in the Grant Projects on 125th Street, when her mother would ask her to look after a neighbor who never left the house. She didn’t set out to become a social worker, but planned to be a nurse when she attended Washington Irving High School in Manhattan. “I didn’t want to see people suffer,” she says. Somehow, nursing wasn’t nurturing enough, and she saw in social work an opportunity to reach people where they lived. Ebron later went to work for the Heights Senior Center, and later the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council, helping improve the quality of life for the elderly. In the 1970s, when Met Council was in its infancy, the organization began to shift from being a resource umbrella for the JCCs to a direct services provider, and in 1977 it hired Ebron for a special project that eventually became crisis intervention services. “It was a one-person operation that became a much more substantial operation,” says William Rapfogel, Met Council’s executive director who joined the agency in 1992. “There are 12 to 15 people on staff and on top of that as many as 10 to 12 social work students, and also the JCC staff who come to her for guidance. She really is a miracle worker.” “When I came to Met Council, I felt like I had been here before,” Ebron recalls. “I felt comfortable, like it was the right place to be. The mission is to never stop listening to the community. How do you understand them if you don’t let them express themselves?” Ebron spent the first 16 years of the job in the field, visiting JCCs and COJOs and reporting back to Met Council about what they needed. “After about 6,000 home visits, I was able to go back to the main office and say that not only do we have to have services for these little mom-and-pop storefronts, the JCCs and the COJOs, but we didn’t know we needed a furniture warehouse, we didn’t know we needed a food warehouse or career training.” Years later, she says she’s still eager to get to work and thrilled with the job. “I’m as excited coming here today as I was then. I’m here to hear someone’s voice and let them know we care. It matters to us that you woke up today.” By virtue of having open doors alone, Ebron believes her office is making a difference. “If you know you’re not the only one going through this particular problem, you tend to be able too handle it better,” she says with pride. “The calls we get on the crisis line, people are at wit’s end and don’t know which way to go.” Ebron, who was honored in 1999 by the Queens Jewish Community Council, the first African American to receive the group’s Chesed Award, has been dubbed the “Mitzvah Mama” by colleagues. “If you say mitzvah, that means good deeds, and mama, if that means I’m the mama of a village, I can live with that, it’s fine with me.” Rapfogel recalls that shortly after he started working at the agency, he heard a commotion in the hall and found a chasidic woman hugging Ebron and saying she had saved her life. “Now that I know Jackie, I see that this is not unusual,” he says. “It indicated how special she was.” Ebron’s best advice to the needy and desperate is “to keep their heads up. We will weather this storm together.” And for the rest of us: “Be kind to each other, because by the grace of God, or Boruch Hashem, however you want to put it, it could be me or you.”