Director’s focus on community has led to growth
By Amy Wolff Sorter
Fort Worth is a great metropolitan area. It is, however, not necessarily a destination city for many Jewish professionals.
At least, not in the experience of Naomi Rosenfield, former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. So, when Carole Rogers applied for the job of director of Jewish Family Services in Fort Worth, Rosenfield was, in her words, “blown away.”
“Finding someone to do that job at a highly professional level is difficult,” Rosenfield acknowledged. “We’d been through so many people, partly because they didn’t want to be in Fort Worth forever.”
Rogers, however, was different. Born in Queens, New York, and raised in New Jersey, she fell in love with Fort Worth from the start, wanting to be a part of the community long-term. “It has a culture of a large city, and the feel of a small town.”
Rogers was hired as JFS’ director in 1999. Twenty years later, she is still in Fort Worth. And, she wants to remain.
Understanding the JFS’ background
The forerunner of today’s Fort Worth JFS was the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), which was created during the Great Depression, in an effort to help people who had fallen on hard times, with a focus on confidentiality and dignity. Predating the Federation, the JSSA became a charter member of the United Way of Fort Worth. The JSSA became a part of the Federation when it was formed in 1936. The organization kept a low profile, maintaining confidentiality as members became more comfortable in seeking physical and mental health assistance.
Then, in 1987, with the advent of Operation Exodus — the rescue and resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union — the JSSA took on an additional role, that of helping to resettle the Soviet Jews throughout Fort Worth and Tarrant County. In the 1990s, the JSSA was renamed Jewish Family Services. However, turnover rate was rampant, with four different directors serving in the 1990s.
Understanding Rogers’ background
In the meantime, Rogers’ professional life began, not in psychology, but in commercial underwriting. Armed with an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, “the plan was to own my own agency, be rich and retire by 40,” Rogers said. “It didn’t take long to realize that I hated it.” She decided on mental health as a career, entered Columbia University for her master’s degree in social work, then decided on a Psy.D. In the 1990s, while JFS was experiencing its revolving door of directors, Rogers came to Baylor University on a full scholarship, adding, “that’s how I got to Texas.”
Her first Texas job involved oversight of the treatment facility for the Dallas County Juvenile Department. She traveled to different parts of the Metroplex on weekends, falling in love with Fort Worth. When she interviewed for the JFS job, however, she wasn’t sure she’d get it. “My background wasn’t in Jewish communal work,” she explained. “It was in clinical psychology. I’m the only clinical psychologist that runs a JFS.” She acknowledged, however, that while attending Northwestern, her favorite class had been a community organization class, communication and public policy. As such, “I figured taking this job would be either really, really good or a flaming disaster,” Rogers said, with a laugh.
In the beginning . . .
When Rogers first joined JFS, her first goal was a needs assessment. “As much as the JFS had done before I was hired, we really didn’t have a pulse on what the community really needed,” she said. “The focus was on the worst-case, the most horrific situation. I’m not minimizing that, but there were a lot more issues.”
Those issues included providing services for people with depression and anxiety. “By helping people become a little stronger and getting through life transitions, they could build stronger families and a better life,” Rogers commented.
Furthermore, Rogers said the JFS narrowed its focus, to individuals age 17 years and older. While children were important, Tarrant County already boasted outstanding children’s organizations. “We realized we couldn’t be all things to all people,” Rogers said. “We just don’t have the resources.” As such, the organization directed its focus toward counseling and case management, referrals and the holiday basket program — programs it continues supporting to this day.
Rogers also found herself in charge of the senior program, in which she improved programs and services. And, in the early days of her tenure, the JFS bus leaked, meaning “people were using umbrellas in the bus,” Rogers said. “It took us two years to get funds to repair that bus.” These days, a grant is in place to cover bus operations and repairs.
Two decades later . . .
Twenty years after her hire, Rogers’ accomplishments have gone beyond a leaky bus. Under her watch, the Jewish Federation allocation fell from 90% to 27%; Rogers eventually wants JFS to be a self-sustaining organization. Also under Rogers’ watch, the Key Operating Fund, an operating endowment, enabled JFS to add staff which includes Hedy Collins (senior program coordinator); Lynell Bond Norman (social worker); Robbie Kinney (psychologist, Northeast Tarrant County office); Miau Ling Tjarhandti (senior program bus driver); Marge Van Giesen (senior program staff) and Lesly Stevens (administrative assistant). Also working with the organization on a contract basis are clinical psychologists Gail Brothers and Daphne Wilson.
Other services added over the years include Life Alert buttons and a Hanukkah gift program, as well as delivery of Rosh Hashanah and Passover flowers to those who are medically isolated. The Northeast Tarrant County office opened because of the need. “There aren’t Jewish therapists up there,” Rogers said. “Now we have an office up there, run by a doctoral-level psychologist, and that’s cool.”
Throughout Rogers’ tenure, JFS has been primarily under the radar. Rogers acknowledged she is not a fan of self-promotion but just wants to get the job done. “No one involved with the JFS has an ego,” she said. “We don’t want the attention. We are a working group, dedicated to providing quality services.”
The Fort Worth community, in turn, has embraced Rogers and JFS, because Rogers, herself, has deep ties with, and a dedication to, the community. “Carole is a person who truly cares about the community and the people in it, and it shows,” Rosenfield said. “That unity and love for the community is so strong; it’s essential to helping people. She’s done a tremendous job at it.”
In addition to moving JFS toward being self-sustaining, Rogers wants to ensure that services are available to help as many residents as possible age in place. “Our community is aging,” she said. “As the community changes, we’re working to adjust to that.”
As continuity is important to Rogers, she said she wants to remain in her current role as long as possible. Rosenfield doesn’t see that state of affairs changing, either.
“The reputation of the agency is such that people are happy to go there and receive help,” Rosenfield said. “The reputation is, as such, that volunteers want to be a part of it, and people in the community are grateful that the agency is there to help them.”