A few cans of paint meant more than just a new coating on the walls at the JCC's Jacob and Esther Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia. It was also a little bit of tikkun olam, one brush stroke at a time.
The center recently participated in this year's United Way Days of Caring, which saw more than 7,000 individuals volunteering throughout the greater Philadelphia community over the course of two days.
Days of Caring volunteers help out in neighborhoods and at organizations all over the region, doing everything from packaging food for the needy to block-by-block street cleanups. According to Emily Rosenberg, marketing director for United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, this year's Philadelphia Signature Project happened in Strawberry Mansion, where volunteers "adopted the community," helping clear weeds and overgrowth from vacant lots and beautifying the area, as well as signing people up for the city's recycling program.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia got in on the act, too — 23
people participated, either working with MANNA preparing food for those with life-threatening illnesses, or doing arts and crafts with youngsters at Youth Service Inc.'s Baring House Crisis Nursery.
At the Stiffel Center, 17 members of the Independence Blue Cross "Blue Crew" volunteer squad repainted much of the building's second floor, also helping with administrative and organizational tasks, and assisting in the kitchen during lunch.
"We get more out of this than what we give back to the community," gushed Sheila Hess, who helped co-lead the group at Stiffel.
"It was a little more interactive this year with the seniors" than in past projects in which she had participated, she said, in part because the group dined with the seniors and got to interact with them one on one.
The Stiffel Center has participated in Days of Caring for more than a decade, said site director Susan Hoffman, and the center often asks volunteers to do work that the employees themselves don't have the time for, or to assist in larger projects, such as helping out with the Mitzvah Food Pantry, to which the Blue Crew volunteers donated as part of their service.
Either way, the overall goal remains the same: "We not only want them to do the work we've asked them to do, but to learn what senior centers are all about, and learn about healthy aging," said Hoffman.
But the Stiffel Center wasn't the only Jewish agency in Philadelphia to see the benefits of Days of Caring: More than 200 volunteers also worked at the Jewish Relief Agency, where they helped pack and distribute boxes of non-perishable food for families throughout the area.
"People have the desire to make a difference in their community, and get out there and volunteer; it's almost like they just need the opportunity," said Rosenberg.
"An event like Days of Caring — that's just two days out of the year. But what we're doing is creating a movement. We want people out there 365 days a year, and these organizations need volunteers year-round."