Life at Work

Every Day Is Christmas

Zahra Reynolds, left, and her sister, Makaria, along with Debby Prigal, wrap gifts at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.
Zahra Reynolds, left, and her sister, Makaria, along with Debby Prigal, wrap gifts at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Have you done your holiday duty already? Toys for needy children? Volunteering at the shelter? Checks for charities? It's that time of year, and most of us feel better when we know we've made someone's holiday just a little less lonely, hungry or deprived.

And then there are the people behind those efforts who work year-round to make people's lives, and Christmases, better. They forgo the big for-profit paychecks in favor of a life that feels more profitable.

Every Christmas Day, the D.C. Jewish Community Center guides almost 1,000 volunteers to various efforts around the city. It holds a blood drive, paints a shelter and holds parties for those who might not be celebrating otherwise. And for five years, Lavinia Balaci has been the woman behind the efforts.

The Romanian native knew while she was in college that she wanted one of those jobs that make a difference. She started out working for a grant-making human rights foundation, helping to educate Romanian academics and students about study-abroad opportunities. The goal was for them to bring their experiences back to serve Romania. But, she said, the job's rewards felt as if they took too long. "I wanted to see more of an immediate result of my work," she said.

After she came to the United States at age 24 for a conference, she met the director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service at the Jewish Community Center, who offered her the job she has now.

"I always wanted to do some form of social marketing or community outreach that I could feel could impact somebody's life in a good way and that was tangible in that impact," she said last week, while trying to ignore ringing phones, e-mails and a pile of paperwork for just a few minutes. "And in a sense, I wanted to see people's lives enriched by giving of their time and resources to make a difference."

The biggest day of her year, which may be odd for a Jewish woman, is Christmas. This is when her year-long efforts culminate in a well-choreographed day of giving and volunteering in the District, affecting more than 10,000 needy people.

Her "personal and humanistic" job is not just about the rewarding feeling she has when her work is accomplished. It's about providing something for others. "That's a very Jewish concept. That's why we've taken this, the biggest holiday in the Western Hemisphere, and turned it into a day of service," she said. "We can really serve on that day, instead of just going out to get Chinese and a movie."

So for all of those people who constantly ask how they can leave their for-profit job for a less profitable, more change-the-world career, here's Balaci's take:

"It was a conscious decision, my choice to join this part of the world that is concerned with finding a solution to problems on a daily basis," she said.

"On a daily basis, I know I'm feeding 1,000 people. If that's all I do, I am making a difference. My advice is whoever is looking to change jobs and get a job in a humanitarian or nonprofit field, do it. There's so much need around and so many things we need to work on and improve."

That is just what Franciena Fowler-Turner was looking for when she had an epiphany years ago. "It's like you aren't doing enough. I said 'What do I want? Money or fulfillment?' " She took fulfillment.

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