Many Covia community services programs would never take place without the dedication of hundreds of volunteers. Whether they are connecting with people by phone or in person, delivering food or doing art work, volunteers are the backbone of the services we provide people in the greater community.
Market Day, our senior produce market program, is almost entirely volunteer-led. More than 300 volunteers in 20 locations put the produce out in baskets when it arrives or help with overall set up of the market, greet shoppers at the door, check people out at the cashiers table, help shoppers during the market when they are picking produce, or just chat with people. Others bring their musical instruments, such as the Fountain of Ukes which performs for the Market Day at Margaret Todd Senior Center in Novato.
Volunteers are mostly seniors, many of them residents in the senior affordable housing communities where the markets take place. Market Day director Teresa Abney says, “I wish more people knew about the dedication of our volunteers. They love helping at Market Day and are dedicated and committed to their duties each week.”
Ruth’s Table at Bethany Center provides a wide range of volunteer-led arts programs and workshops, often led by residents. “One volunteer at Ruth’s Table is Bethany Center’s resident Margie A. Ramirez,” says Ruth’s Table director Jessica McCracken. “Margie has been an active volunteer for Ruth’s Table programs from the moment she moved in. Not only does Margie actively participate as volunteer support but she has brought her granddaughter, Talia, along the way who literally has grown up at Ruth’s Table. Now a young woman in her early teens, Talia takes an active role in Ruth’s Table programs teaching and setting up alongside her grandma.”
Participant volunteers are also an important part of Well Connected. Katie Wade, Assistant Director, shares “A little secret about our volunteers – many of them have chosen not to list their credentials or life experience in an effort to enhance the peer-to-peer aspect of the program. Each call holds such potential as you continuously uncover a variety of treasures hidden in each person’s life story. You could encounter an activist, attorney, world-traveler, mother, band member, first generation immigrant, dairy farmer, and so much more.”
Along with programs out in the community, volunteers who have been trained and gone through a background check may provide services directly in people’s homes, such as the Home Delivered Grocery Program in Novato. “Every Tuesday morning 18 volunteers shop for and deliver groceries to homebound elderly Novato residents who are unable to shop for themselves,” explains Carol Ann Moore, Director of Senior Resources for Marin County. “This is a 23 year old program and we still have one of the original shoppers! Clients not only receive groceries but a friendly visit. Volunteers are trained to notice and report concerns to the Director. We follow up by connecting them to other services they need or reporting health concerns to their contact person.”
Regular friendly visits are also the goal of Social Call with volunteers either providing a phone call or an in-home visit at least twice a month. “We couldn’t do this without volunteers, as simple as that,” says Brian Stannard, Director of Social Call for San Francisco and Alameda County. “They are the engine. The volunteers bring all kinds of skills: languages beyond English, computer skills, companionship, empathy.”
Volunteers include people of all ages. Stannard says, “Many of our new volunteers fall under the millennial category, a group that sometimes generates negative public opinion. In my observations, their passion and commitment to serving undermines any millennial prejudices people might harbor.” And Moore adds, “Volunteers say that volunteering gives them something to do with their time after they retire. It helps them feel connected and sense of worth. One volunteer said it provides him immense joy just knowing he is making life a little better for an older person.”
To find out opportunities to volunteer with Covia Community Services, please visit our VolunteerMatch site.
It’s easy to see the communities that Covia creates through its housing. What’s less known is the community created through its services. Covia provides Resident Service Coordination to 21 senior affordable housing communities throughout California, a service that’s largely invisible despite its impact on people’s lives.
Service coordination is about connecting residents with the public benefits, services and programs that can improve their lives and makes it more likely they will be able to stay longer in their homes.
“A lot of seniors have a lack of resources so we bring them community resources. We play the role of a bridge, connecting our seniors to local community resources,” says Bonnie Chang, Resident Services Coordinator for Lytton Gardens in Palo Alto. These can range from help with insurance or other paperwork to finding a way to pay for an electric scooter to registering residents with a local PACE [Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly], and much more.
Service Coordinators are also on-site resident advocates, says Ericka Battaglia, Lead Resident Services Coordinator at Good Shepherd Homes in Inglewood. “When I say advocate, I mean we support them through whatever they’re going through whether it’s physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. If we see a resident is not doing well, we provide resources for them so that they’re able to get better and age in place successfully.”
Katherine Smith, Senior Director of Social Services, explains that one of the most important things RSCs do is provide wellness education programs on site. Giving residents information on managing chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure, or providing fall prevention programs makes it more likely that residents will be able to live at home as long as possible, and prevent the need for invasive and costly medical interventions.
Service Coordinators come from a range of backgrounds, though many have degrees in gerontology and social work; most have Masters Degrees. Most of the Covia RSCs are bilingual or trilingual; among them, they can offer services in Korean, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and ASL and help to bridge the gap between cultural and language barriers.
The advanced degrees in social work also help Service Coordinators speak the same language as community service providers, says Battaglia. “If you’re finding a resource for behavioral health, the process moves a lot swifter if you speak the same professional language.”
Battaglia explains that she works as a liaison between building managers and residents. While the property manager’s job is to maintain the facility and fulfill HUD guidelines, the RSC’s job is to see that the resident is doing well. “For instance,” she says, “my property manager will come to me and say, ‘We have a resident that is not going to pass this inspection because they’re hoarding.’ “Instead of just going to residents with paperwork, notices and warnings, I can go and say, ‘Let’s figure this out together.’” It’s a win-win situation.
Residents win when they receive the services they need. Mary Avina, Resident Service Coordinator at Jennings Court in Santa Rosa, tells the story of a resident who needed significant dental work but couldn’t afford it. “He also desperately needed other medical procedures, but due to the infection in his mouth, he wasn’t able to get the other medical procedures done,” Avina explains. “So I assisted him in find the resources to be able to finance his most needed dental work to be done, and he was able to get that done and then able to get the medical procedure that he desperately needed. He’s very happy now and doing a lot better.”
“A lot of these seniors are – you know, they’re new to aging,” says Battaglia. “We’re trained to make sure their living experience isn’t another hassle for them, isn’t another barrier they have to overcome. We chose this because this is what we love to do, and this is the population that we want to serve.”
The following is a summary of the workshop presented at the Aging in America conference by Amber Carroll and Katie Wade. Amber Carroll is Director and Katie Wade is Associate Director of Well Connected (formerly known as Senior Center Without Walls).
Setting the stage for their presentation, Well Connected Associate Director Katie Wade asked workshop participants to close their eyes and imagine someone they have a strong connection with. Around the room, she saw faces light up as people reflected on the warmth and happiness that comes from those relationships.
This simple exercise illustrated the importance of connection in people’s lives that Katie Wade and Director Amber Carroll have both seen in their work with Well Connected (formerly known as Senior Center Without Walls). “This week, would it be an exaggeration to say that you’ve heard the word ‘loneliness’ and ‘social isolation’ like a billion times?” Carroll noted. “Loneliness and social isolation have been going on since the beginning of time, but folks are starting to talk about it.”
Studies have only recently begun to calculate the health impact of loneliness and social isolation. Some studies have found that loneliness has the same negative effect on health as smoking 15 cigarettes or drinking 6 alcoholic beverages a day. Wade points out, “When I go to my yearly physical, I’m asked to fill out something about how often I drink or if I’ve ever been a smoker. But very rarely am I asked if I’m feeling lonely or if I’m feeling connected. But we know it has the same physical impact.”
Carroll notes, “This is why everyone is talking about it now. We’re seeing these real health connections to loneliness, and realizing that loneliness costs buckets of money.”
Well Connected addresses the issue of loneliness through the mutual support and reciprocal relationships provided by participants, many of whom also become group facilitators. Rather than trying to fix the problem for others, Well Connected emphasizes that participants are able to help one another. “The model of giving and receiving is what makes our program unique,” says Wade.
As an example, Wade spoke of Lynnie, whose photo is featured above. Lynnie has been a participant and facilitator for Well Connected for over a decade, facilitating at least 100 groups. After Lynnie’s recent diagnosis, she decided to facilitate a group called “Living Through Dying” for the upcoming Well Connected session, which begins April 9.
As a phone based program, Well Connected also is very accessible for people with vision loss. Along with large-print catalogs, information is available in braille and in audio form. This year, Well Connected is hosting the second National Conversation on Aging and Vision Loss, presented by the American Foundation for the Blind, on May 4th.
Well Connected helps break down barriers and bring together diverse populations. Carroll explains, “There can be somebody who’s in their SRO in the Tenderloin here in San Francisco participating with someone in New York who’s in their penthouse Central Park home, connecting around a central interest in a topic. You just don’t see that in a senior center that’s geographically bound in a particular neighborhood.”
Wade adds, “When I came to the program, it really challenged some of the biases that I had. For example, I knew Gloria, a participant, maybe for three months on the phone before she mentioned she was in a wheelchair. I had pictured her as this 20-year-old blonde. It really challenged the stereotypes that I hold.”
Unlike many other senior programs or communities, Well Connected groups take place seven days a week, giving seniors activities to participate in over the weekend. One of its long-running groups, Gratitude, has just celebrated its 10th anniversary, meeting every day at 9:00 am and expanding to a second group at noon. Wade shares, “We have developed a culture of gratitude in part because we do this every day, twice a day, seven days a week.”
“This has been an amazing job,” Wade adds. “I often think, ‘Am I getting to do this and being paid for this?’ To join the calls, to work with the volunteers, to plan the programs. But also, I don’t think a day goes by where we don’t get a positive report from someone saying, ‘Here’s how this has impacted me.’ And some of the ones that really stick with me are people who were feeling pretty serious depression and thoughts of suicide when they came to us. We’re not here as a therapeutic intervention but we know that social connection does address those issues. We’ve had people say, ‘I’d do anything for Well Connected because this program saved my life.’”
To download the most recent Well Connected catalog, click here. To register for the Spring session, which runs from April 9-July 8, call Well Connected at 877-797-7299. You can also visit their page on the Covia site.