Burb's Eye View: Helping people work through change

Everyone at the Joslyn Adult Center knows the gentleman who shows up on Tuesday afternoons as Barney, or Mr. Meskin. Not everyone knows what he's doing there.

He sets up in a little space and waits for his group to arrive. They just need a few chairs and an envelope to pass around later — a donation for the adult center that for the past 15 years has provided Meskin space for his work.

They trickle in, totaling 10 to 15 at any given time. If someone decides to stop coming, they'll be missed; but also replaced. There's a waiting list for “Barney's Group.” It has a more official name: Senior Support Group. While that describes its technical function for the adults ages 55 and over who attend, no one argues this is Barney's Group.

With his guests in place, Meskin begins his weekly routine. He tries to focus on process, he says, to get at the root of why these adults feel the way they do about the big things. A lost spouse, or changing family dynamics, or retirement might all be talked out in a single session. There are rules to follow: everything said in the room cannot be shared at the dinner table afterward.

“We don't put anybody down,” Meskin said.

Through this simple philosophy, Meskin lifts them up. Now almost 90, he's had a lifetime of practice.

Meskin and his family arrived on Ellis Island in 1928 from Lithuania. His father's hay fever never meshed with the sinus-throttling seasons of New York, and on a suggestion from a family member, he visited Santa Monica, where his allergy evaporated. In 1946, the year Barney Meskin ended his service with the Navy, the clan piled into a 1942 Plymouth and drove to Southern California.

The five-day trip included a stop in Las Vegas.

“It was fun being there when the mafia still owned it,” Meskin said.

He made a living leasing, and eventually owning, hotels and billiard halls in Los Angeles, including the landmark Hotel Westminster on Main and 4th that was torn down in 1960. Though he carved himself a people-oriented career, it wasn't enough. Meskin wanted to do something that truly helped people.

That opportunity came in 1981 at American Jewish University in L.A. The Wagner Program, a two-year human services program that trains paraprofessional counselors, provided Meskin the training and outlet he was searching for. He quickly discovered he had an ability and desire to help people sort their problems.

He also had the resources. Meskin began counseling prisoners, offering some of them rooms at his hotels after they were released so they could find work. One ex-con learned to sew while incarcerated, and Meskin was able to find him a storefront and a sewing machine.

Sometimes the counseling sessions with prisoners went well, he recalled, and sometimes they'd just say what you'd want to hear. Often the men he helped get on their feet would end up back where they started.

“I didn't take it too hard because we were warned these people lived in a way where they didn't have to do anything for themselves [while in prison],” he said.

With limited means he had to let it go, but he'd go on to form another men's support group at a local temple.

In the late 1990s, he visited the Joslyn Center with a friend who was being honored with a volunteer award. Meskin sought to volunteer for the center, and he found a way to match his skills with the center's mission. After all, he did help found the Burbank Human Relations Council and long ago joined the Burbank Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

His first group session at Joslyn met June 1, 1997. A single notice in the center bulletin yielded about 25 people for the first meeting, Meskin recalled. Some folks returned for a few weeks or months; others have attended for years.

He tries to help people understand why they do something, why they think a certain way, what makes them happy.

“It's about getting to the root cause of why they're feeling what they're feeling,” he said. “Then they have the option to change. One of the things that help you go through change is pain, and figuring out where the pain comes from.”

Gayle Migden, recreation supervisor at Joslyn Adult Center, said Meskin has made “a tremendous difference in people's lives.”

“Barney Meskin is an amazing man. He is able to see the big picture in everything in his life,” she said.

With Barney's Group, he's helping his neighbors see the big picture too.

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he's not enjoying some allergen-free SoCal air, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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