Sandy Mitchell, a middle-school teacher in Orlando, was helped by Jewish Family Services’ Family Stabilization Program. (Photo by Charles King/Orlando Sentinel)

Article by Matthew J. Palm, Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer, December 16, 2016

When Sandy Mitchell needed to get her life on track, Jewish Family Services was there.

Sandy Mitchell had a lot going for her: A doctorate degree, a career, a new daughter. But then she fell ill with sickle cell disease, a blood disorder. She lost her job at a Jacksonville charter school. Student-loan debt was ballooning. Mitchell ended up in Orlando. And in trouble. She found help in getting her life back on track through Jewish Family Services of Greater Orlando, one of the agencies supported by the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund. “I’m still overwhelmed by the great turnaround they helped me make,” said Mitchell, who lives in west Orange County.

Mitchell’s story is not uncommon, said Jeanette M. Brownstein, director of programs for Jewish Family Services. Many people can be knocked down by just a bit of bad luck. “Most of our clients have had some kind of crisis,” she said. The agency, located in Winter Park, helps people pick themselves back up.

“I was getting doors shut on me everywhere,” Mitchell said. “But JFS wanted to help me. I wasn’t able to keep up with my bills. But we came up with a plan.”

Mitchell’s debt was around $60,000, she said, and JFS found her financial counseling. But that was just one piece of the assistance Mitchell received. The JFS Family Stabilization Program takes a holistic approach to helping individuals and families improve their situation with an eye on the long term.

“It’s a whole package deal to help them gain skills for a stable future,” Brownstein said. Along with credit counseling, clients also receive training in employment skills and mental-health support for six months. The program also addresses urgent needs, such as rent and food. Taking care of those essentials makes the long-term education more effective.

“If someone comes in for counseling and they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, that’s what will be on their minds,” Brownstein said. To provide the different services, JFS partners with other organizations such as Christian Help, which manages employment-related coaching, and Consumer Debt Counselors, which handles financial education. While clients participate in the workshops and counseling sessions, day-care is available for children — a service that helped Mitchell provide for her young daughter. Brownstein calls it “a one-stop shop” to “address all of the clients’ financial and emotional needs and empower them to gain stability and self-sufficiency.”

For Mitchell, it was a godsend. Faced with sleeping in her car, she instead used JFS to find a place a live — a daunting task for those with damaged credit. She was able to get a job, teaching business education for Orange County schools. “It’s a passion,” she said of educating children. “I truly, truly enjoy it.”

Mitchell is far from alone in being helped by the agency. Since its inception in 2005, the JFS Family Stabilization Program has served more than 550 families. In the most recent program evaluation, 100 percent of clients demonstrated improved money-management skills, 94 percent maintained or improved their employment status and 94 percent maintained or improved their housing situation.

Mitchell is making progress in paying down her debt, she said. She was able to furnish her home with help from The Mustard Seed, an Orlando furniture and clothing bank. She joined a supportive church in north Orlando and is enjoying her job. Jewish Family Services has a special place in her heart.

“I’m very thankful,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, I know I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Click here to read the article in the Orlando Sentinel’s website.