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Peer Support Services: Graduation Of Peer Counsellors

Graduation Class Of Spring 2016

Grace phoned me about a week-and-a-half ago, and asked if I would say a few words this evening on behalf of our class. I asked her for some clarification: should I talk about my experience with the JSA Peer Counseling program, or my personal learning experience, or my classmates, or the quality of the instruction I received, or my thoughts and feelings around volunteering, or my observations about the JSA programs in general? She answered “Yes, that would be good. Five or ten minutes would be fine.”

So, I’m going to speak about several aspects of my personal experience: about volunteering, about my classmates, about the JSA Peer Counselling program, and about the program leadership.



Many of you in this room are experienced volunteers. You have been involved in volunteer work for months, or years. It’s part of your life, of who you are. I, however, am a neophyte, a “newbie”. I’ve only recently begun to understand the value of volunteering.

Over the years, I had all the usual reasons for not becoming a volunteer: no time, too much work, children to take care of, no volunteering skills. I’m sure you’ve heard them all. I have a box on my desk with a label that says “Roundtoits”.

I’ve mentally put all the things that I haven’t gotten around to starting, in that box. “I’ll do that as soon as I can get a roundtoit.” For me, volunteering has always been in that box.


In the spring of 2016 I decided to get a “roundtoit” for volunteering, and peer counselling was the path I chose.

The class of 2016

It’s difficult to talk about something passionately without using cliched adjectives, like “incredible”, “amazing” “fabulous”, “awesome”. In our final peer counselling training session, while trying to make a point, Grace taught us this about superlatives: when describing something you feel strongly about, you can use the word “very” as many times as you want. Just keep going until you feel you’ve hit the right number.


In that spirit, I want to say that I am very, very, very…very thankful to have been included in this group of very, very, very…warm, caring, talented, smart, witty, hard-working people. By way of introduction, please meet David, Karon, Galina, Vladimir, Roxanne, Greta, Cyrile, Jacqueline, Monica, Jessica, and Nancy. Our second Nancy was unable to be with us this evening.

Our class includes a wide range of personalities, skills, and talents. I’m fortunate to have made new friends with people from all backgrounds.

We’re a truly diverse group. I learned that the 13 of us were born in at least seven different countries. About half of the class is fluent in at least two languages. We have very a wide range of education and work backgrounds. We represent the whole spectrum of volunteer experience: some people have already been volunteering for years; others, like me, are novices.

The JSA Peer Counselling Program

For me, this program has been the beginning of a wonderful journey. I discovered in one of our first sessions that all of us in the group shared a desire to learn, a thirst for knowledge about a common theme – peer counselling. To satisfy that thirst, we have been taught, and have started to practice, a whole new set of skills over the eleven weeks of our training. We have learned to listen. How to listen actively. We have learned the difference between empathy and sympathy. We have learned to be attentive to someone else, and to understand that, often, that person is trying to solve a problem, and wants,

more than anything, for someone to listen to them, to hear them without judging, to reflect their predicament, but not to solve it screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-2-25-41-pmfor them. This is the essence of the JSA Peer Counselling program.

I’m truly grateful to have been given the opportunity to spend so much time with such wonderful classmates. Talking to them, listening to them, sharing with them, learning from them. They have enriched my life immeasurably.

I’ve already found that the skills I’ve learned have altered the way I relate to some of my friends, my colleagues, my employees. Even my family. I’m now eager to get started as a peer counsellor, to help someone who needs a listener.

Charles and Grace

So, how did this group happen to come together? Obviously, not by chance. There were a number of applicants for the spring Senior Peer Counseling training program. Like any equal-opportunity situation, there was a screening process to fill the available spaces. Each of us was interviewed – by phone and/or in person – for a seat in the class. I’m certain that it was only because of skillful and discerning interview techniques, by two very special people, that we became the “Graduating Class of Spring 2016”.

Charles Leibovitch is the JSA Peer Support Services Coordinator

Many of you already know him. My personal contact with Charles has so far been brief. He was part of my initial interview for the Peer Counselling program. He came to one of our early classes to introduce himself, and I have had a chance to speak with him briefly at a few screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-2-25-48-pmshorter encounters since then. While I can’t say that I know Charles well, it seems clear to me from the sophistication, efficiency, professionalism, and success of the Peer Support Program, that Charles is a dedicated and competent professional member of the JSAlliance team. I look forward to getting to know him better.

Grace Hann, JSAlliance Senior Peer Support Services Trainer, Supervisor

I’m certain that I speak for all of us when I say that Grace is a “very, very” special lady. These are some of the things we have learned about Grace:

She’s passionate about volunteering, about volunteer training, about senior issues, about advocacy.

She feels strongly about family, about gardening, about hiking, about meeting new people every chance she gets (Grace seems to constantly have new stories about people she has met, and talked to, on most of her commutes between Vancouver and her home on Sunshine Coast).

She’s a role model. She leads by example. She gives freely and generously of her time and knowledge. She’s a natural teacher and mentor.

In a time when personal communication, face to face conversations, people actually talking to each other, are fast losing ground to earbuds and thumb-typing and a “you mind your business, I’ll mind mine” mentality, Grace is a renaissance woman. She reaches out to people, she embraces them. She shows that she cares who they are, and she gently brings them into her life.

I’m sure I speak for the whole class when I extend a “very” heartfelt thanks to Charles and Grace for guiding us on the beginning of this journey. We hope the relationship will be a long and rewarding one for all of us.

Bob Finkelstein



screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-2-48-54-pmMerle joined Jewish Seniors Alliance Peer Support Services in 2015 as a natural progression from participating for many years in community services in both South Africa and Canada.

Merle was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and emigrated to Canada with her husband Ivan and three sons in 1992, settling in Vancouver in 1994. Merle, together with Ivan, worked for many years in both South Africa and subsequently in Canada in the Promotional Products Industry, and both enjoyed interacting with a variety of different people on many levels of business.

When they retired a few years ago she found more time to devote to helping other people. Merle had an excellent role model in her father who was social and philanthropic and who so naturally enforced the humanitarian ideals of “Tikkun Olam” and “Chesed” – to repair the world with acts of kindness and to ensure a safeguard for those who may be at a disadvantage.

Her participation on the Board of Directors of Chabad of Richmond gave her an insight into the plight of seniors, their need to attend the regular lunches offered, the classes and the entertainment – all so essential during the “Senior Years”.

So, when the opportunity to participate in the Senior Peer Counselling (SPC) Training Program at JSA became available, Merle chose to participate to help fill some of the gaps of service in Greater Vancouver in both the Jewish community and the senior service community.

Merle found the SPC training with Grace Hann (SPC Trainer) intense, exciting and professional and she enjoyed the camaraderie amongst the diverse group of participants. Upon completion of her 55 hours of training she was paired with four clients, who are each now visited once a week.

Merle would like to see many more mature adults (55+) enrol in this training and become Senior Peer Councellors, Friendly Home Visitors or Friendly Phone Callers.

Regularly providing a confidential empathetic ear, no judgement, and no advice can go a long way towards our clients gradually finding their own coping skills.

An excellent Program. Thank you JSA!!

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-2-49-02-pmI want to be supportive of others: Since I was young, there has always been the deep desire to help and support others as a humanitarian. But during my early adult life I had to set this aside temporarily to tend after my young family. Later on in my life as I began to approach retirement, the deep longing to immerse myself in the greater community once again hit me with intensity.

One day I spotted an ad for a free Senior Peer Support Counselling course given by Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver. A sense of excitement stirred in me. I knew that this was the answer to the “How” of my search for community involvement.

I then took the 55 hours training course in 2015 with Grace Hann, the Volunteer Trainer and Supervisor at JSA Peer Support Services.

I learned from the training the need and skill to understand first myself so I can then understand others, being totally present, active listening, responding with empathy without judgement, no advice and no rescue. For me, these are the key ingredients for delivering effective peer support.

Visiting a client for the first time was not easy. There was a mixture of excitement and nervousness at the uncertain outcome of my encounter with a client. Fortunately, I had the guidance of our Trainer/ Supervisor and Coordinator, Grace Hann and Charles Leibovitch.

Working from the framework of empowering seniors to find effective solutions to their own challenges, my confidence grew after a series of client visits. Presently, I am regularly visiting three clients and as well teamed up with a retired registered nurse senior peer counselor visiting a senior facility where we see several more clients.

One time a client asked me, ”Why are you doing this”? Without hesitation, I said it is something I want to do. It feels right and seems the most natural thing for me.

Thank you Jewish Seniors Alliance for opening the door for me.

Giving Is A Way To Live Well


Graduates of the Jewish Seniors Alliance Peer Support Services program, and teachers. (photo by Binny Goldman)

On June 11, I walked into a room filled with givers – of themselves. It was the special occasion of the graduation ceremony of the fifth class of peer counselors, which took place at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture.

They were 13 men and women of various ages who had met as strangers and quickly become an extended family of friends. Through 11 weekly five-hour sessions in which interactive role-playing was used, they were taught how to listen, comprehend and use their newly acquired techniques.

Charles Leibovitch, coordinator of peer support services, warmly welcomed those gathered – family and friends of those receiving certificates and members of the board of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver. He introduced himself and Grace Hann, trainer and supervisor of the peer counseling program, then credited the founder of JSA, president emeritus Serge Haber, for being instrumental in initiating the program and working diligently to ensure that it thrived through continuous and crucial funding issues to meet the ongoing needs of our growing senior community.

Leah Deslauriers, coordinator of seniors at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, informed the audience of the many and varied activities open to all people (Jewish or not) at the centre for a nominal fee. She encouraged all to visit and partake in yoga, swimming, card playing and just general socializing. Expressing the wish for further partnering with the JSA, she extended a mazel tov to the graduates.

Barb Kirby of Community Resource Network said that, in both a personal and professional capacity, she had seen many gaps in the care of seniors over the years. “One of the greatest gaps we see is lack of support causing social isolation of seniors and that is why your job is so important. Your training and expertise provides a lifeline to those who truly are in greatest need,” she said

“They say it takes a village to raise a child. I believe it take a village to care for the elderly and it takes a special kind of person to care for the elderly. You are that caring voice or the person sitting next to

someone who truly needs a caring human connection or to go one step further to help get the further supports they might need.” One individual, organization or government cannot do it alone, said Kirby. “Speaking up, sharing knowledge and best practices will help make our communities a safer, more enjoyable place for those who need our support.”

She thanked Haber and JSA president Marilyn Berger “for providing all the invaluable services to bring awareness through education and support to our communities.”

Becky Herrmann of Angels There For You noted that people want to be needed, sought after and validated. She recommended the book Give to Live, and said there were no side effects to giving of oneself, urging everyone to try doing so. Larry Shapiro, one of the graduates, countered with, “There are side effects, but no negative ones.” Herrmann later presented each of the graduates with a gift.

Shapiro spoke next, sharing with the audience that, having completed the course, he felt prepared to go out and serve as a counselor. He proceeded to give a little history of peer support counseling in British Columbia, which has been present since the 1980s, addressing social isolation and other daily issues affecting seniors. Shapiro felt the course had taught him empathy, as well as the skills and techniques necessary to offer others methods of self-help.

Fellow graduate Neveen Hossameldin said that, as an immigrant, what one missed most were the friendships left behind, and that she didn’t have another 55 years to forge new ones. Yet, after 55 hours as part of this group, she had indeed made new, lasting friendships. Hossameldin appreciated that Haber had told the class that they were not working for JSA but were part of JSA. Echoing what others had said, she praised Hann for making the sessions pleasurable and warm.

Hann, laughing, said that since Shapiro had stolen a good chunk of her speech, she would just thank JSA and its founder, Haber, who deserved a special tribute for his vision, without which the program would not exist.

She underscored that self-absorption kills empathy and focusing on ourselves makes our world contract whereas giving to others broadens our world.

Leibovitch spoke of the ongoing need for peer support services and of the graduates who go out in the community to help combat the loneliness he sees daily. He said that phone calls to the office are often by those who have been guided by others to use the peer services, and that this essential, relevant help has become very valuable in the community. Karon Shear, coordinator of JSA, and Rita Propp were thanked for their constant commitment to excellence and giving of themselves.

Haber said, “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you,” a teaching found in other religions as well. Giving of yourself – so necessary both to the giver and the receiver – helps to alleviate loneliness, isolation and perhaps even remove the tarnish from the gold quite often present but hidden in the “golden years.” JSA is very proud of this program, he said, adding that he, too, had taken the course to familiarize himself with what was being offered and that he, too, had learned to really listen and hear what was being said. He concluded with the wish that all the graduates would go out and spread good will.

Certificates were handed out along with a rose to each graduate, as was a hug from both Hann and Leibovitch.

Ruby Boychuk, one of the graduates, presented Hann with a bouquet of yellow roses, explaining that yellow roses symbolized love and appreciation.

Family and friends proudly took photos of the celebration, while Stan Shear took a video that will be posted on the  JSA website. Refreshments shared by all helped bring the evening to a close, leaving a sweet taste in our mouths and in our hearts. Mazel tov, graduates. Mazel tov, JSA.

Binny Goldman

Binny Goldman  is a member of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver board.

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