CJFS CARES Director Wins National Award

Five years ago, Birmingham had no half-day respite offerings for families affected by dementia. Today, the city boasts several volunter-powered respite programs, and the Collat Jewish Family Services social worker who helped launch the first one has been honored by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Pam Leonard, LBSW, CDP, has been named the AFA’s Dementia Care Professional of the Year. Pam is founding director of CJFS CARES, which launched in January, 2015 to serve families affected by Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke and related disorders.

CARES was founded to provide meaningful physical, cognitive and social engagement for those affected by dementia while providing their caregivers a much-needed break. Today, with a small staff and a formidable cadre of trained volunteers, CARES serves more than 40 families each year and serves as a community model. Through partnerships with UAB, the Levite Jewish Community Center, N.E. Miles Jewish Day School and other organizations, CARES engages outside facilitators to provide stimulating activities that are both beneficial and fun. 

In nominating Pam for the AFA award, volunteer Suzanne Gibson Moseley noted that her first encounter with CARES was when she and her sisters enrolled their late mother as a participant.  “I now volunteer at CARES weekly, primarily because of the profound impact Pam and the CARES program have had on my family,” Suzanne wrote. “Before CARES, it seemed that Alzheimer’s disease had destroyed Mom’s ability to enjoy life. At CARES, she laughed, sang, played games and even had the opportunity to help others.”

Pam also has a family connection to dementia. As a young adult, she helped her father and his siblings care for their mother when she was affected by dementia. “That experience helped me understand how hard it is to see someone you love suffer with this disease. I have great empathy for our caregivers, and I know their days can be very long.”

Hanging by the entry at CARES is a sign reading, This is my happy place. “It was put there by a caregiver who recognized that her mom found friendship, love, acceptance, laughter, purpose, and success in this place,” Pam says. “She found these things while dealing with the grief of losing her husband and receiving a new dementia diagnosis.”

Pam says she has found her own “happy place” at CARES.  “I am fortunate to be able to create, along with our staff and volunteers, a place where people can find joy while navigating through a disease that can present so many challenges.” 

Before leading the development of CARES, Pam served for 11 years as a CJFS social worker, providing comprehensive care management for older adults and, later, managing the CJFS Personal Care program.

“In all of her roles at CJFS, Pam has tried to help older adults live as fully, richly and independently as safely possible, while also striving to relieve stress for family caregivers – and these are also the values of CJFS,” said CJFS Executive Director Lauren Schwartz. I am not at all surprised that Pam has been recognized by the Alzheimer’s Foundation, and I am incredibly proud.”    

At a reception on Thursday, Dec. 5, CJFS will celebrate the award, as well as CARES’ 5th Anniversary. The celebration will be 4:30-6 pm at CARES, 3794 Crosshaven Dr., Vestavia Hills, AL 35223. Light refreshments will be served, and all are welcome.