On the evening of Wednesday, May 25th, JCCA held its 200th anniversary gala at the historic Ziegfeld Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan. Due to the pandemic, it was our first gala in three years and there was palpable excitement as JCCA staff, donors, trustees, volunteers, and elected officials filed into the elegant, art deco space for the cocktail hour. A selection of archival photos from JCCA’s storied history were projected on the walls as a jazz band played and guests reconnected.
Before long the lights dimmed and JCCA’s Young4Ever dance team kicked off the evening’s program. Their high energy performance had the audience on their feet and ended with a standing ovation and joy on the dancers’ faces. Louis Jaffe, President of JCCA’s Board, took to the stage to welcome all in attendance and acknowledge the incredible achievement of 200 years of service to New York’s neediest children and families. “Though our programs and practices have evolved and expanded in countless ways over those two centuries,” Jaffe continued, “our core mission remains unchanged: to repair the world, child by child.” The audience was then treated to a short video surveying JCCA’s rich history and vibrant present.
CEO Ronald Richter took to chance to thank the generous and committed community of support found in the room, shouting out a number of elected officials, sponsors, and trustees in attendance. “Thank you for recognizing the vital and urgent work that we do. It’s only because of supporters like you that an organization like ours can survive and thrive for 200 years.”
Richter then introduced one of the evening’s featured speakers, Ed Hajim. “Ed is a shining examples of what can happen when a child with the odds seemingly stacked against them is given the chance to develop their gifts and fulfill their potential,” Richter remarked. Hajim spoke in moving detail about his remarkable life trajectory. As a boy, he passed through a number of orphanages run by JCCA’s precursor organizations and eventually made his way to college and then to Harvard Business School, where he found his calling in the field of finance. Thus began an astonishing 50 year career that saw him lead a number of major investment firms and, no less importantly, find joy and fulfillment in the formation of his own family. Hajim reminded the crowd that having someone to lean or look up to in life’s most difficult and decisive moments can make a tremendous and lasting difference.
Retaking the stage, Richter turned the attention toward JCCA’s staff, acknowledging the way they show up day in and day out for our kids with energy, compassion, expertise, and full-hearted commitment. “This was never more on display than during the pandemic,” Richter said while asking staff to stand for a round of applause. “You went above and beyond in countless ways to adapt to an ever-changing situation and set our kids up to thrive in spite of it.”
Next came what was perhaps the emotional highlight of the night––reflections from four young people in our programs about staff who’ve impacted them. O., an Edenwald resident, was overcome with nerves and emotion, and took a moment to collect herself before speaking from her heart about the support she’s received from Nurse Sherene. “She’s respectful and genuine. When you speak to her she makes you feel like she has all the time in the world. Everyone should have someone like that in their life.” When O. got Covid, Nurse Sherene was there. “I was scared and crying,” O. went on. “Nurse Sherene came to see me every day. I kept telling myself I wasn’t going to make it and she kept telling me that I would. After I got better I took it on myself to comfort other kids if they got sick.” A., also from Edenwald, continued the praise for Nurse Sherene. “She’s the most kind and caring person I know,” A. said. “I love Nurse Sherene for what she’s done for me and the kids on campus.”
D. spoke about his youth coach, Kevin Young. “If I’m stuck on a problem Kevin makes it his business to make me feel OK,” D. said. “Because of Kevin I know I have support. I know I can depend on people.” S., from Liberation Diploma Plus High School, in Brooklyn, was the final youth speaker. “I’m a proud young trans man,” S. said as his mother, seated beside him, fought back tears of pride, “and I’d like to thank my counselors, especially Mr. Mike. Thank you for helping me come out proudly to my mother. JCCA is a safe haven for us students. Now, I know my future is very bright and I have people supporting me every step of the way.”
The donation auction came next. Hands shot up into the air as auctioneer Lucas Hunt listed all the things, big and small, that contributions could support: from college tours, outreach to prospective foster parents, expansion of cutting edge practices like play therapy, tech connectivity, expanded telehealth offerings, and enrichment activities like music lessons, camping trips, art supplies, or handicap accessible bikes.
Barbara Salmanson, Chair of JCCA’s Board, capped off the evening’s formal program. “It’s remarkable to look out on all the faces in this room,” Salmanson said, “each of you has given us an amazing gift: your support, your time, your expertise, your trust. Thank you.” Salmanson then shifted the focus away from JCCA’s past and present and toward its future. “In this anniversary year,” she said, introducing a video about our $35 million Capital Campaign, “we aim to revitalize our Pleasantville campus for our next 200 years of service.”
While dinner was being served a special guest arrived: New York City Mayor Eric Adams. Adams took to the stage to honor JCCA’s ongoing work. “You are saving lives,” he assured everyone in the room. “You could easily sit back and enjoy your life, but you feel something in you that tells you to do more. You take that pain, that trauma, that fear that the kids bring, and you say: ‘I’m going to help.’”
It was undeniably a joyous, successful, and slightly overdue celebration of JCCA.