By Lee Chottiner
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, David L. Finke would rush home at mid-day to make lunch for his grandfather, who lived with the family.
Today, grown, married and a trained psychologist and human services executive, Finke and his wife, Helene, have a son who was born with a rare chromosome abnormality that inhibits verbal communication. He has never spoken.
These two experiences have left their marks on Finke, the new chief executive officer of the Jewish Family & Career Services. They affect how he sees his job and the mission of the agency he has been hired to run.
“There are two populations that communities want to support,” Finke said in an exclusive interview with Community. “They want to support kids and they want to support older adults. Those are populations that can’t take care of themselves.”
As CEO, he hopes to serve both groups, and all the other populations that JFCS traditionally helps.
Only three days into his job at the time of the interview, Finke nevertheless gave a broad outline for what he wants to do as CEO: improve the quality of services, increase the “breadth and quantity” of services, maintain a “happy work force” (which he said will impact the quality of its work) and make the Jewish community proud.
Finke is specifically focused on vulnerable populations, which he has worked with since he entered private practice. That is why the former executive at Bellewood & Brooklawn – a local children’s service agency – hopes JFCS will venture more into services for kids under his leadership.
“If we’re going to repair the world, if we’re going to make a better Louisville community,” he said, “then part of that is serving children and families.”
He said services can be increased without affecting existing services.
Sitting in his office, wearing a business suit with a Save the Children necktie, patterned with a colorful brood of young people, Finke said the work of JFCS is about “trauma-informed services.”
Trauma is a misunderstood term, he said. It doesn’t just mean victims of accidents and shootings seeking treatment at a hospital ER.
Trauma means much more: refugees rebuilding their lives in a new country, people who have lost their jobs and must reinvent themselves, grown children caring for aging parents, even people dealing with social justice issues or coping with stress brought on by a steady stream of negative TV news.
“Trauma impacts who you are and how you operate,” Finke said. “It’s important to be able to acknowledge that and work through that so you are no longer a victim of trauma.”
Those dealing with trauma are not just the JFCS clients either; they include the service providers.
“A trauma-informed care system does a good job of taking care of its employees; and the employees then, in turn, take care of their clientele,” he said.
Coping with trauma is something Finke and wife Helene, also a psychologist, know about first-hand. As the parents of a special-needs son – their youngest, Max – they have had to wrestle with government bureaucracy to get him the care he needs.
Max, 19, has Phelan-McDermid Syndrome (PMS), a rare genetic condition caused by a deletion or other structural change of the terminal end of chromosome 22. As PMS children grow, they typically have some degree of developmental and intellectual impairment. Most do not acquire functional language, and about 75 percent have been diagnosed with autism.
Though physically healthy, Max understands only 15-20 words, including names, and can pronounce only certain guttural consonants.
That means Max must communicate by other means, using an electronic tablet or physical gestures. Recently, the family had a frozen pizza for dinner, Finke said. “He walked over to the kitchen counter and touched the pizza box [indicating] that’s what he wanted to eat.”
While Max qualifies for a Medicaid waiver, which provides him the services he needs, his parents must reapply every year – a process fraught with pitfalls.
For instance, one year the state lost Max’s file, delaying renewal, but not interrupting services.
Another time, Finke showed up at the Medicaid office to apply for the program wearing a business suit. Because of his appearance, he was told this was a needs-based program, and he would not be approved.
Both experiences shed light on people who need government assistance. Finke said he has always been fortunate to hold jobs where he could take time to look after his family. JFCS clients are not always so lucky.
“A lot of times, those who are hourly employees don’t have an understanding boss,” he said. “I recognize how fortunate I am, but I also recognize that I’m not that different, and I think that is true of all of us. We’re really not that different from the folks that we serve here.”
Finke said JFCS’s mission as a Jewish agency that serves all of Louisville is reflected in the words of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be; if I am not for others, what am I?”
While he is committed to keeping JFCS connected to the Jewish community, “I think, being part of the Jewish community, we need to be there for the rest of the Louisville community.”
Venturing just once into politics during the interview, Finke lamented the rise of racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the country, warning that it could affect how JFCS does its job.
“Unless we think about how to have dialogues about the difficult conversations, and unless we as Jews are participating in those dialogues … we’re not creating a better world,” he said, “and in my mind, that’s part of our job.”
Finke graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and Michigan State University, where he earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He has been in private practice since 1995.
He and Helene are members of The Temple. Besides Max, they have two other sons: Cole and Jacob.
He also co-chairs the Bounce Coalition, a multi-agency community collaborative that implements trauma-informed practices in schools, courts, health care systems and other public and profit/nonprofit agencies.
So, his new job fits with his other experiences.
“I’ve always been about working with part of the population that is underserved,” he said. “And as a society we have not done what we can do to help take care of them.”
Asked why he wanted the job, Fink wondered aloud, “Who wouldn’t want this job?”