Jan Abrams: Children are her passion and life’s work

Jan Abrams is passionate about helping children. Photo: Kristi Foster

By Carol Wolf Solomon, Special to the Jewish Light

Sometimes the benefits of working out extend well beyond physical fitness. In the case of Jan Abrams, a session on the treadmill landed her a dream job. Seven years ago, as Abrams was exercising at Wellbridge Athletic Center & Spa, Susan E. Block happened to hop on the treadmill alongside hers. The two women knew one another from their mutual volunteer involvement with Jewish Family & Children’s Service. They struck up a conversation as they walked to pass the time. 

Block, an attorney and retired administrative judge for the St. Louis County Family Court, told Abrams about Caring For Kids (CFK), a small nonprofit she helped found that “provides essential resources to meet the urgent needs of abused, neglected or at-risk children in St. Louis County.” 

Much to Abrams’ surprise, what started as a casual conversation between acquaintances quickly evolved into a job interview. Before she knew it, Abrams was hired as the executive director and sole employee of CFK. While the title and responsibilities are lofty, Abrams receives only a modest stipend to run the organization. This job is truly a labor of love. 

“I’ve always had kids at the center of my life,” she explains.

 Spend five minutes with Abrams, and her passion for her work and “her kids,” as she calls them is on full display. Don’t underestimate this petite doting grandmother of one. Her diminutive stature belies an abundance of energy and a tenacious determination to meet the urgent needs of children.

Abrams has a long history of helping children. After receiving her teaching degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, she taught English at St. Joseph’s Academy, a Catholic high school for girls here in St. Louis. When she and her husband, Bob, were expecting their first child, the pregnancy ended tragically with the death of her child during delivery. That experience led Abrams to become a volunteer counselor with the group AMEND (Aiding Mothers Experiencing Neonatal Death), which at the time was a project of the Life Seekers      organization. 

Abrams took a brief hiatus from volunteer work following the subsequent birth of two sons. She resumed volunteering when her boys entered preschool, first serving on the Board of the Ethical Society Nursery School, and later becoming active in their elementary school’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). Leadership roles in the Glenridge Elementary PTO led to an eventual run for the Clayton School Board, where she served for three terms covering a span of 10 years. She continues to be involved with the Clayton School District. 

For the past 19 years Abrams has read to kindergarten and first-grade students at Glenridge Elementary School once a week through the St. Louis Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring program. “Sometime I work with struggling readers and sometimes with proficient ones. I have so much love to give, and all kids thrive on one-on-one time.” 

Abrams is also active in the Jewish community. She has served in a variety of committee and leadership roles at Family & Children’s Service, including a term as its president.

The job offer seven years ago to run CFK came at an opportune time. Abrams had recently retired from running the photography studio at her husband’s family printing business, Ultra Color, but was not ready to slow down. She had been contemplating what to do with the next chapter in her life. She still had plenty of energy and passion to devote to a worthy cause. The minute she learned about the work of CFK and the impact it has on children’s lives, she was all in.

While serving as an administrative judge in the St. Louis County Family Court, Block kept seeing children in her courtroom with basic, urgent needs that weren’t being met by the government or other agencies. Since she was still on the bench, Block couldn’t establish the organization herself. She enlisted the help of lawyer friends to bring her vision to fruition, and in August 2003, Caring for Kids was established. Requests for emergency assistance come directly from the family court liaison. Abrams and the organization’s volunteers then jump into action with a goal of meeting the need within 72 hours. Abrams prides herself in often getting the job done within just 48 hours.

Providing beds for children was one of the first and most critical needs observed by Block. The lack of a bed can keep a child from being reunited with family following a temporary removal from the home and can also prevent a foster family from being certified to provide long-term care for a child. 

Since then CFK has become the “go to source for beds,” says Abrams. In addition to providing a bed, Abrams makes sure that each one comes fully furnished with a complete set of new bedding because “many of these kids have never slept on a pillow nor had their own blanket.” Abrams also gives each child a couple of books. As a former English teacher, “I believe every child should read or be read to every day.”

In addition to beds and bedding, CFK provides many other necessities ranging from school clothing and bus passes to eyeglasses and tutoring. In one instance, the organization paid transportation expenses to enable a disabled child to attend a one-week special needs summer camp. The state had funded the tuition but did not cover the transportation. 

“Jan is the perfect Unsung Hero,” says Block. “Her work is mostly behind-the-scenes. She does it all from scouring stores for the best prices on beds, clothing, and other necessities, to writing grants and speaking with social workers, volunteers, and donors.” 

Block also notes that when CFK can’t meet a particular need, Abrams is quick to collaborate with or refer to another organization that can. Abrams will do whatever it takes to try to help a child in crisis. “The hardest part of my job is realizing that I can’t save all the children,” she says. “I love what I do. I get to help kids every day. I can make a big difference sometimes just by doing just doing something small.” 

Caring for Kids serves about 300 children annually. Its funding comes from corporate and foundation grants, private donations, and an annual fall fundraising event. 

The CFK Board also appreciates the extraordinary devotion Abrams has to her work. Board member Brad Wallace notes, “Jan is the driving force behind the organization. While we support CFK as Board members, Jan does more than 90 percent of the legwork. She is a caring, giving, amazing person. None of this work is about her. It’s all about helping others.”