At age 62, Marlene A. Schillinger has served as president of Jewish Family Service since 1995. The organization that provides comprehensive elder care, gambling recovery support, refugee resettlement, career counseling and mental health outpatient care.
One of 148 branches of Jewish Family Services in the country, the Buffalo agency serves 4,000 clients each year. It is located on Barker Street in the shadow of Temple Beth Zion, and has an annual budget of $3.4 million. Established in 1862, the agency employs 55 people.
Schillinger spent her childhood in Bayside, Queens, before moving here to attend the University at Buffalo, where she studied theater, English and earned a masters in education. She started her career as a senior vocational counselor working at the Clarkson Center for 18 years.
People Talk: What fostered the nurturer in you?
Marlene Schillinger: My parents. I was the oldest of four and the only girl. That, and I am a product of the ’60s.
PT: Were you a hippie?
MS: I’m not sure what that means, but I think it shaped who you are and where your focus is. My son used to call me a tree-hugger. Did I have braids? I went to Woodstock. I still have the ticket. I’m going to give it to my nephew.
PT: Describe your work.
MS: I’m an advocate for people. My interest is in mental illness.
PT: How does Buffalo’s poverty rate figure into your agency services?
MS: Through our gambling recovery program. People gamble trying to pay the rent. Kids will use their tuition to gamble. Gambling is a problem that’s not spoken about enough. There are more opportunities than ever to gamble. I’m not talking casinos. I’m talking about the lottery, scratch-offs, even meat raffles. Bingo at a temple or a church is gambling. People who have a problem with gambling will go to the closest venue to satisfy that need. If you can’t get to a casino, you might sit at a bar playing Quick Draw. I think there is a huge opportunity for kids to gamble on the Internet. Gambling is not seen at the same level as substance abuse.
PT: So how do you increase public awareness?
MS: We don’t have as big an advertising budget as we used to, but years ago our billboards would be on all the buses in Erie County that traveled to Niagara County. On the backs of the buses it would say: “Do you have a gambling problem?” January is a big gambling month. During this month there is also a lot of abuse going on by spouses who lost money who take it out on their kids.
PT: What other services do you offer?
MS: We see kids, seniors and adults at our state-licensed mental health clinic. Our refugee resettlement program helps immigrants coming from war-torn countries who have gone through a lot. Some have been in camps for 10 years. We have people who saw their loved ones murdered. We have kids who are deaf. One of our new initiatives is building a virtual trauma-torture center. We have people who are traumatized, and it may prevent them from moving forward.
PT: What has been a major change in the health care field?
MS: The integration of physical and behavioral health. We are working with you as a whole person. We are not subcontracting out your body to different people. We are also looking at social determinants to health. Why is it that you are not adhering to your meds? Are you diabetic because you don’t have access to healthy food?
PT: Tell me about a professional golden moment.
MS: One of my recent golden moments was that I finished in September a 40-hour training called Mental Health First-Aid. I was trained in Boston. It will help you recognize people with a challenge, whether they’re anxious or depressed or they start giving personal items away. We have a tendency to walk by people who are exhibiting different types of behaviors. I don’t think people are comfortable asking people what they are doing.
PT: Are you a tough cookie?
MS: I can be outspoken. I don’t think people would say I am shy petite and demur.
PT: As a kid, were you outspoken?
MS: I think that my friends were advocating more for me because I was real quiet, and easily intimidated. My friends took care of me and spoke up for me.
PT: Why is mental health your priority?
MS: Because I have family members who are living through bipolar disease, and they’re functioning. They don’t have a stripe on their forehead or a scarlet B on their chest.
PT: How do you deal with stress?
MS: I make jam. I’ve been making jam for 30 years. The only flavor I do not make is strawberry because I can’t get the hang of it. I do cherry which is my favorite, and raspberry which is my husband’s favorite. I want to start a jam business with immigrants and refugees as a training tool. I garden, kayak. I do glasswork. The other thing I do is make soup.
PT: Are you a spiritual person?
MS: I think that I am. I have some basic tenets that are unwavering: You save one life you save the world. I think I believe in universal principles. Am I Jewish? Absolutely.
PT: What is the Jewish population in Erie County?
MS: The Jewish Federation, which is the equivalent to a United Way or Catholic Diocese, did a population study and estimated 12,500 people. What’s interesting is that one in five have financial security challenges.
PT: What attribute are you know for?
MS: I always tell you what I’m thinking. You always know where I am coming from.