Trustee Stephanie Spiegel is this year’s honoree at JCCA’s “A Tree Grows in Pleasantville” event. It’s a fitting award for a woman who organized the first Tree event in 2005, started the Pleasantville Cottage Campus Lunch Bunch volunteer program 14 years ago, and continues to devote much of her time to the campus. Stephanie’s enormous energy and dedication to JCCA extends to almost every facet of the organization. She recently took time to share with us what is at the heart of her commitment to the agency’s work with vulnerable children and families.
JCCA: Tell us about the time you spend on campus.
JCCA is my passion. I’m very lucky—I have the time to do what I want. And much of that involves JCCA. I’m generally on campus twice a week, going to two or three cottages each week. I go to all my lunch bunches (we currently have eight groups). We do a craft, or play a game, and bring lunch, which can be pizza, Chinese food, or Italian. Sometimes the volunteers cook meals to bring, like homemade tacos or turkey dinners for Thanksgiving. We finish with a cake and candles if a child has a birthday that month, otherwise other desserts. We bring a gift card for the birthday child as well as small gifts for all the other children.
These activities are always joyous. We’re like visiting grandparents, bringing good food, love, and attention to the kids. Sometimes a child might be having an especially hard day: we see a few who start the hour a bit downtrodden, but then it is uplifting to see them leave in a happy mood. When they first come to PCS, they may be more withdrawn, less willing to participate. But it’s great to see them becoming more vocal and excited.
JCCA: What other JCCA activities are you involved in?
I’ve been part of the annual Tree event since I organized the first one. I take the kids who will be greeters on a shopping trip to buy nice outfits. We collect for a movie fund every Christmas so all the kids who stay on campus for the holiday can see a movie and get a snack. And I just donated a whole bunch of duffle bags for the belongings of the kids going into foster homes.
I’m a JCCA Board member and serve on four program committees. At one time, I mentored a boy from Edenwald and my family has been volunteering there as well. I recently participated in a Pleasantville task force, where we talked to local people about the campus over a meal. We want to educate the community about our work and lessen the tension and concerns about the campus. I’m always happy to work for and help the kids in any way I can, and I speak often with the staff and Board about ways to improve their lives.
JCCA: We’re so grateful for your work on behalf of our kids! If you have any time left over, how do you spend it?
I work with UJA of Northern Westchester and Sunrise camp for children with cancer. I also have a wonderful mother I like to spend time with. I’m a tremendous dog lover (I have two dogs) and often go to a preserve with them—I’m a big animal advocate. I like to work out, write, read, and spend a lot of time with my family, who have also volunteered on campus. And I belong to a book club and Torah study group.
JCCA: Having been adopted yourself, working with our kids must have a special significance for you. Can you talk a bit about that?
SS: Every time I walk on campus, I think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s kind of a roulette wheel, whether you’re born into good circumstances or bad. My birth heritage was not good. If my birth mother hadn’t given me up for adoption, I probably would have ended up in foster care. Being adopted by a wonderful couple makes you understand in a more profound way that your life could have easily gone in another direction. The idea that I was able to end up where I did, and not in foster care, compels me to want to give back whatever little bit I can. These kids touch everybody’s hearts, but it’s perhaps more intense for me.
JCCA: And didn’t you discover not long ago that your birth mother and mother-in-law were in care with JCCA?
Yes! My birth mother had a rough time—she was abused in foster care—so I hesitated to ask her about specifics and hadn’t made the connection. When I finally found some records and questioned her about JCCA, she lit up. She had a high opinion of her social workers and always loved the people at JCCA—she said they saved her life. My mother-in-law never realized it was JCCA she was in care with, but about a year ago, I also discovered her records in JCCA’s archives.
JCCA: What are you most proud of in your long history with JCCA?
SS: I don’t feel that I do that much compared to the staff and people in foster care who take in kids with serious problems—they’re the real heroes. It’s a gift for me to be able to do what I do.
I guess I’m most proud of how many people started coming to the campus as volunteers 14 years ago. I feel I lit a match that caught fire and now we have more than 500 volunteers on campus, many of whom come here with their own children. They know there’s a place nearby with hundreds of kids who have had the worst life imaginable, so they do their part to improve those lives. Anything I had to do with that makes me proud.