In 2003, Elaine Geller moved back to Cleveland after many years in California. Her husband had recently died and she had just retired from her position as a vice president of the Federal Reserve System. She was looking for a meaningful, supportive community to get involved in, and she found it in the National Council of Jewish Women/Cleveland.
Geller liked that she did not have to “put in her time” before she could start making a difference. NCJW has more than 18 community service projects with which she could immediately start volunteering. She also liked that though the organization is inspired by Jewish values, its mission is to help improve the lives of all women, children and families throughout Cleveland.
Elaine Geller is the embodiment of the Jewish philosophy to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.” She’s been NCJW/Cleveland’s vice president of finance and treasury (four years), and recording secretary (two years), among other work. In recent years, Geller has felt that her responsibility as a NCJW/Cleveland volunteer extends beyond the community in front of her, to the wider community in which she lives.
This ideal drove her to learn about — and then lead — the Stop Human Trafficking committee two years ago, the first Jewish Cleveland organization aimed at advocating for and protecting trafficking victims, a $32 billion annual criminal industry.
Each year an estimated 1,078 Ohio children become victims, and 3,016 more are at risk.
BATTLING A SINISTER INDUSTRY
Geller and her committee drive to local hotels monthly to drop off pictures of missing children, to distribute posters listing signs to look for to identify trafficking victims, and to hand out free soap — labeled with the human trafficking hotline — to cleaning and hotel staff.
Geller and her committee have spoken to more than a dozen local organizations and businesses about human trafficking. They’ve talked with at-risk girls about the danger of sex trafficking. She has also helped to bring NCJW’s self-esteem classes to survivors of trafficking, and is currently lobbying state officials to post more trafficking emergency numbers in public businesses.
While meeting with legislators and supporters, Geller learned that many of the victims of sex trafficking are young people who had aged out of the foster care system at age 21. With no home to go back to, and few housing or employment options once they leave foster care, they are easy prey for pimps.
THE FOSTER CONNECTION
This information prompted Geller to become involved in foster youth outreach and lead NCJW’s involvement in The Open Table, an innovative, national group mentoring program that helps former foster youth gain independence.
Open Table works through a “table,” much like a family’s dinner table, consisting of six to 10 people who share vocational skills, life experiences and personal networks to build trust with the former foster youth. NCJW/Cleveland became the first Jewish organization in the country to participate in this national program and has hosted two tables in the past year. Geller is a member of one of them.
She also co-chairs a committee to find housing for foster youth who age out of the system. Homelessness — and the fear of homelessness — can lead to criminal activity, human trafficking and teen pregnancy.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Geller’s focus on human trafficking and aged-out youth has attracted a new generation of members to the 2,000-member NCJW/ Cleveland, has formed partnerships within the human trafficking community in this city and has considerably increased awareness of the crime.
As the chair of the organization’s annual Lois Zaas Memorial Advocacy Lecture, Geller organized and helped recruit a record number of people to the event when it focused on human trafficking. Because of Geller, NCJW/Cleveland has made connections with organizations such as the Collaboration to End Human Trafficking, the YWCA and Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution. It was largely because of Geller’s efforts that the Renee Jones Empowerment Center, an organization dedicated to supporting survivors and victims of human trafficking, awarded NCJW/ Cleveland their Faith Based Community Award in 2015.
Through her exhaustive work and commitment, Geller has given a voice, a name and a helpline to a largely unknown population.
Geller has turned a passion for the underdog into a full-time volunteer position. In the process, she has changed the way the community — and NCJW/Cleveland — views and supports the most vulnerable members of society.