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Making an Impact

JewMass and PJ Library partner to collect children’s clothing for young homeless mothers 

By Stacey Dresner

WORCESTER – Emily Adler, a second-year med student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, has a strong interest in pediatrics. 

Active in Mentors for Mothers, a volunteer project to benefit You Inc., a behavioral health and education agency for youth and families in Central Mass., Adler works with young homeless mothers in a group home in Worcester, helping them to become the best caretakers they can be for their children.

“I’m very interested in how stress from childhood adversity affects the brain, learning and overall health,” Adler explains. “In undergrad I did a mentoring program that was very meaningful to me and then I started reading a bit more about how adversity affects kids and their health…I learned that having a supportive caregiver can make a huge difference. So when I got to UMass and saw there was a group called Mentors for Mothers… I thought, wow, that has some real potential to make an impact, given that what we are finding is that if you can work with the caregiver, that can really buffer against the effects of toxic stress.”

A native of Brookline, Adler is also a member of JewMass, a program of the UMass Medical School’s department of Diversity and Inclusion, which is co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Central Mass.

Now she has brought the two programs together for a special tikkun olam project – a children’s clothing drive for the young mothers affiliated with Young Inc. and its Mentors for Mothers program, in partnership with the Jewish Federation’s PJ Library.

The clothing drive, seeking new and gently-used clothes and shoes for children ages zero to five, will begin on Friday, Aug. 23 and will run until Oct. 23 with drop-off locations at UMass Medical Center, the Worcester Jewish Community Center and most of the region’s synagogues.

Adler got the idea for the clothing drive while talking with Mindy Hall, director of outreach for the Federation. One population that Hall reaches out to is the community’s young adults through Federation’s Young Adult Division, or YAD. An outgrowth of that is working with the young medical students who participate in JewMass. “The Jewish Federation funds some of our events, and Mindy will work with us on JewMass events and help make flyers,” Adler said. “She has done this for so many years so she really knows a lot about working with the community.”

They began talking about the tikkun olam project at a local Shabbat dinner. Hall mentioned PJ Library, another program she coordinates.

“She was talking about PJ Library and how they send free books to kids,” Adler recalled. “I said, ‘Its too bad the women I work with are not Jewish, it sounds like they could really benefit from a service like that.’ And Mindy said, ‘Well, we should make a partnership, because Judaism is not just about helping Jews.’ So that’s how it got going.”

Adler and Hall met and brainstormed. Hall asked what would be helpful to the young mothers. Adler went back to ask the mothers and they said that with how quickly their kids grew, they were in constant need of children’s clothing. They decided a clothing drive was the perfect tikkun olam project for JewMass.

“It’s exciting to be doing a drive in partnership with JewMass and the temples in the areas, which got involved through Mindy. They have so many more resources and people are really excited to be donating. It’s a mitzvah and it really does align with Jewish values,” Adler said. “I think reaching out to the community is fantastic, and I also think it really sends a strong message to the moms that the Worcester community cares.”


Making a difference

Adler, a native of Brookline, says she was involved “a little bit” with Hillel when she attended Princeton as an undergraduate. But when she graduated and worked for a while as a teacher at a school in Connecticut before medical school, she discovered that she was the only Jewish faculty member.

“That was around the high holidays, and I sent out an email trying to figure out if anyone was going to temple. It made me realize that there are some places where there aren’t a lot of Jewish people.”

A Jewish family in town did reach out to her and invited her to their home during the holidays – “and it really meant a lot,” she said. “I realized that in the past I had been very fortunate to be in places where there was a large Jewish community, and I realized that isn’t always going to be the case.”

She says that experience is one of the reasons she wanted to get involved in JewMass.

“My big goal in JewMass is making sure that people feel like they have somewhere to go, as someone who was worried I was going to be spending the high holidays alone one year.”

She explains that JewMass, which she co-leads with Alex Kaplan and Michelle Parris, is “not an affinity group. We are an interest group so you don’t have to be Jewish to come. So for example, we had a Purim event last spring and we had 30 or 40 people and it was a mixture of people who wanted to learn a little bit more, maybe have some free food,” she laughed.

Both Adler and Nina Monestime, another UMass medical student, are the leaders of Mentors for Mothers. They help design weekly workshops for the 20 young mothers who are a part of the program, and who live in two Worcester group homes. 

“In the past it has been related to health, things like nutrition education,” Adler explained. “This year we’ve done a bit more with parenting because when we asked what would be useful to you, one of the moms said, ‘I want to give my kid the best shot.’ So we have been framing things in a little different way. We’ll still do health – we did a workout class the other day – but we’re also broadening it a little bit.”

This summer Mentors for Mothers started partnering with other local organizations that could donate some of their services to the young moms.

“So for example we had a haircut-a-thon,” Adler said. “We had hairstylists from the Worcester area come in and donate their time to cut hair. There are so many factors to health even if it doesn’t necessarily seem like it on the surface. I was thinking about how self-esteem is a social determinant of health.”

Now the whole Worcester Jewish community will be helping to make a difference the lives of these teen mothers.

Adler credited Mindy Hall for all of her help.

“Mindy is just phenomenal. She had a good idea – to time the clothing drive with the Jewish holidays when people are cleaning out and starting the New Year,” Adler said.

“The clothing drive is just a nice thing where we get to work together with the medical school,” Hall said. “It’s one of those feel good things where every one works together.”

Participating organizations and clothing drive drop-off locations include: Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, Congregation B’nai Shalom, Jewish Federation of Central Mass., Shaarai Torah West, Temple Emanuel Sinai, Torah Center, University of Massachusetts Medical Center, and the Worcester Jewish Community Center. For more information contact Mindy Hall at mhall@jfcm.org.

Main Photo: UMass medical student Emily Adler, LEFT, working with some of the teenaged mothers through You Inc.’s Mentors for Mothers. 

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