A Century of Helping Hand
Apr 03, 2023 Cedars-Sinai Staff
After surviving the Holocaust as a child in Poland, Betty Persion arrived in Los Angeles in 1946 at the age of 8 and found a good life for herself here. Three decades later, she was able to devote time to volunteer work, and she joined Helping Hand of Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that has a long history with Cedars-Sinai and operates the medical center’s gift shop.
Now Betty is one of four volunteers who each began their service with Helping Hand anywhere from roughly 45 to nearly 65 years ago. The group also includes Ann Saltzman, Nan Krasne and Helen Kozberg. Their motivations for getting involved were similar.
"I wanted to do something to give back and help a good cause."
"I wanted to do something to give back and help a good cause," explains Betty, who still works in the Helping Hand Gift Shop every Wednesday and Friday.
The long-term impact of Helping Hand
The dedicated volunteers are emblematic of the women who have been the driving force of Helping Hand since its inception more than a century ago. The organization’s efforts were recognized in February, when Helping Hand observed its 100th anniversary.
Helping Hand technically is a standalone nonprofit entity, but it is completely focused on Cedars-Sinai. The organization runs the gift shop bearing its name on the Plaza Level of the South Tower along with a related website, and all profits go to the Cedars-Sinai Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Its impact has been substantial. Helping Hand has funded two endowed academic chairs and raised more than $13.2 million for Obstetrics and Gynecology from 1974 through 2022, according to Michele Prince, director of Volunteer Services at Cedars-Sinai.
"Beyond that, volunteers often make deliveries to patients’ rooms and brighten their day. That’s where some of the magic is," Michele says.
Getting back up to speed
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit Los Angeles hard in March 2020, the gift shop was closed and the volunteers were sidelined. The shop gradually began restoring hours in February 2021.
"The Helping Hand comeback is still underway," says Sheila Burman, president of Helping Hand.
One mission is to get the word out to all employees—a key group of customers—that the shop is open again. In addition, Sheila says, the shop is looking for new volunteers. The shop now has about two dozen volunteers, down from 37 before the pandemic.
"We’re working to get back up to speed," Sheila says.
An organization’s mysterious origins
There is a measure of mystery about the origins of the organization that evolved into today’s Helping Hand at Cedars-Sinai. Board members recently explored some of the history and discovered that a group named Women’s Benevolent and Helping Hand Association of Los Angeles, Inc. was incorporated in California on Feb. 8, 1923.
The trail goes cold for the years immediately afterward. Then, in 1930, according to news articles published at the time, a committee of Jewish women began a charitable project under the name The Helping Hand of the Los Angeles Sanatorium.
What remains elusive is the connection that might have existed between the two groups. Yet, by 1933, The Helping Hand of the Los Angeles Sanatorium had devoted itself to raising money and providing medical supplies for Cedars of Lebanon, one of the two hospitals that merged to form Cedars-Sinai. In 1944, it opened a Helping Hand Gift Shop at Cedars of Lebanon, and later the retail outlet migrated to the Cedars-Sinai campus.
The wives of doctors and of other influential families in Los Angeles’ Jewish community served as Helping Hand hospital volunteers in the early decades.
Continuing a family legacy connected to Cedars-Sinai
Nan Krasne, who began volunteering with Helping Hand in 1974, followed the footsteps of her grandparents. Her grandfather, Lemuel Goldwater, was a businessman who served as a longtime president of Cedars of Lebanon, and her grandmother, Hortense Goldwater, was one of the pioneering members of Helping Hand.
"They were very interested in having a Jewish hospital on the west side of town," Nan says.
She noted that, due to discrimination, Jewish doctors at the time could not serve on the staff of other hospitals in Los Angeles.
Nan says her grandmother, as part of her Helping Hand volunteer duties, would take patient histories at a clinic in Hollywood across the street from Cedars of Lebanon. Her grandmother and the other volunteers at the clinic didn’t have medical training, but the work was seen as a way to pitch in and help the hospital.
"She would tell me, ‘We thought we had such nerve, taking people’s histories like we knew what we were doing,’" Nan says, with a laugh.
A cohort of close friendships
Today’s longest-serving volunteers began under the tutelage of a group within Helping Hand known as the Helping Hand Founders. The younger volunteers, who were in the Helping Hand Associates or Helping Hand Juniors, were schooled in fundraising and running the gift shop by the longer-established members.
The founders had created a retail outlet that was a destination not just for hospital employees and people visiting patients, but also for stylish shoppers seeking special wedding gifts and other luxury items.
"We all looked up to these women with awe. They were extraordinary. They could do everything. And they had exquisite taste," says Helen Kozberg, who started volunteering with Helping Hand Associates in the late 1950s.
Helen and her cohorts "were proud of ourselves because we were able to contribute from working, not just fundraising."
What’s more, women who were active in the group formed close friendships and took great satisfaction in contributing to Obstetrics and Gynecology.
"We all started as we were having babies, and so we had a special affinity for the Department of OB-GYN," Helen says.
Betty noted that when she began a three-year stint as president in the late 1980s, she already had been a volunteer for 10 years.
But the veteran leaders, she says, "thought I still was a new member."
The gift of volunteering in a gift shop
The gift shop these days puts more emphasis on selling snacks and convenience items than it did years ago, to be helpful for employees and visitors. But Helping Hand volunteers still take great pride in running a first-class shop.
"I’ve always joked that some hospitals used to have a gift shop with a broken Timex and a wilted plant. We have had so much of a selection—children's clothes, baby clothes, things for the house, books, jewelry, so many nightgowns, robes, so many different things," says Ann Saltzman, a former Helping Hand president and a volunteer for 55 years until recently bowing out.
Ann, like other longtime volunteers, worked for years as a merchandise buyer for an individual department of the shop. In Ann’s case, the specialty was jewelry.
"I loved being a jewelry buyer," she says. Ann says she would inspect merchandise at downtown wholesalers in person, never buying from a catalog or online. "I had to see it and hold it in my hand."
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the work, however, has been the visits to patients’ rooms.
"There’s nothing nicer than delivering a gift," Helen says.
To volunteer for Helping Hand or elsewhere at the medical center, please contact the Department of Volunteer Services at 310-423-8044 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can apply online: cedars-sinai.org/volunteer-services/adults/general.html