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A Gathering of Angels

Training Program Prepares Volunteer Counselors for a Lifetime of Helping Others


Arlene Samek was a longtime executive in the profitable and stress-filled garment industry in 1993 when she decided, after years of worrying about the bottom line, that she wanted to do something for the community.

"I was kind of burned out of the apparel industry. My husband and I had been very successful and done well for many years and I wanted to take a new direction and give back a little bit," said Samek, 55, of Encino.

Like many people considering a new career, Samek enrolled in an adult education course, paid tuition, took midterms, wrote papers, did fieldwork and earned a certificate. And at the end of her course work, she entered the work force, not to take a paying job but to volunteer her skills at a center for abused teenagers and as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children.

Samek is one of the 350 graduates of the Wagner Program, a nonsectarian outreach effort of the University of Judaism that attracts students from all over Los Angeles. The students spend two years and nearly $1,800 in a human services training program. When they finish, they are considered para-professional counselors who work without pay at nonprofit agencies devoted to people struggling with emotional or physical problems.

Why would anyone put in so much time and money without a monetary payoff? The answer is simple, according to Betty Wagner-Kramer, the 75-year-old West Los Angeles woman who founded the program in 1981 as a tribute to her late husband, Rabbi Joseph Wagner. "They have good hearts and they want to help people," she said.

Phoebe Frank, director of the program, said the students come from diverse backgrounds but all share a dedication to the community. "There are a lot of people who yearn to do more than just live for themselves."

The current Wagner class of 48 students, the program's largest ever, will graduate next year. They range from their 30s to their 80s and attend class one full day a week at the University of Judaism, a private, four-year college in the Sepulveda Pass. All the students make a moral commitment to spend at least two years after graduation using their skills in volunteer positions.

Wagner graduates work under the supervision of professional therapists, Wagner-Kramer said. The course does not qualify them to provide professional services, although some do go on to become full-fledged psychologists or counselors.

Jeanne Jacoves, who graduated from the Wagner Program in 1985, is a volunteer suicide survivors counselor and leads a support group for high school students affected by family violence. "I get the satisfaction of knowing that if somebody is going through a hard time, I can make it a little easier for them. With the high school students, when I see one of them from a really bad home situation getting into college and making a break from violence and abuse, especially the girls, that's exciting for me," said Jacoves, 59, of Los Angeles.

In a survey of 200 Wagner graduates, 125 reported that they were still volunteering their time at nonprofit agencies many years later.

Wagner-Kramer founded the program shortly after her first husband, the longtime rabbi of Hollywood Temple Beth El, died. Many of her friends wanted to do some good in the community, she said, and she encouraged them to become volunteers. Then she started thinking about how much more effective they could be if they had some training.

She and Frank, along with Shelly Chosak, developed a course in which students would be trained in the human life cycle. Guest lecturers from various nonprofit groups are brought in to talk about AIDS, abuse, disaster survival and other topics.

In the second year of instruction, the students perform fieldwork at community organizations.

Upon graduation, the students can return to take continuing education classes. The Wagner Program is privately funded through donations and grants.

Sandra Kessler, 60, of Encino, saw a newspaper ad about the class when it started. Her children were teenagers, she said, and she was starting to feel like a "carpool mom." "It was a midlife reawakening for me," said Kessler, who now works part time and volunteers part time for an organization called Children of Aging Parents.

When she first got up to give a presentation in class after decades of being out of school, Kessler said, she had "panic attacks like you wouldn't believe." Now, she speaks frequently at mental health centers, hospitals, temples and community groups.

Aside from the personal growth and fulfillment of helping others, Jacoves said, she has found another plus through the Wagner Program: meeting and forming friendships with the other graduates. "I find that they are really interesting people who have done so much for the community. They are able to participate in conversations about issues other than their children and grandchildren."

The Beat

Today's Centerpiece focuses on the Wagner Program, a human services training program for volunteer paraprofessional counselors. For more information about the program, which is based at the University of Judaism, call (310) 476-9777, Ext. 215.

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