May 20, 2021

By Becca Whitnall

ACORN SERIES/// Pandemic Pros

A calendar on the wall at Senior Concerns is still opened to March 13, 2020.

That’s the last day it was turned to before the nonprofit’s headquarters on Hodencamp Road were shut down due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

For over a year, the award-winning nonprofit has been unable to fulfill its primary function as a daytime center for adults requiring special care, providing family caregivers with a safe and nurturing space to leave their loved one for a few hours each day while they recharge.

Even so, the organization has been busier than ever.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced March 15 last year that older adults and those at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 should stay isolated, the Senior Concerns staff switched gears.

Suddenly, older adults in the Conejo Valley who had been mostly self-sufficient were stuck at home without the means to get food on their own. While Senior Concerns’ day care program closed down, its Meals on Wheels program rewed up.

In the first week or so of the lockdown, the program saw a 20% increase in demand for home­ delivered food.

“I don’t see that changing anytime soon. It’s only going to increase,” Senior Concerns President Andrea Gallagher said at the time.

She was right. The program has gone from serving 800 meals a week to more than 4,000.

“We’ve done that in multiple ways;· Gallagher said.

First, staff sounded the call for volunteers. Many of the program’s delivery drivers were seniors who now had to stay at home. In the past year, the organization has gained around 400 volunteers, a number of whom donate time well beyond their prescribed duties, said Martha Shapiro, director of programs.

“We had a volunteer who felt so badly this woman would have no visitors for the holidays, so she drove over to deliver a gift and stay and chatted on Christmas Day;’ Shapiro said. “We also have a client whose adult son died, and a volunteer knew this and brought flowers last Mother’s Day.”

With volunteer staffing in place, there was the challenge of finding partners who could help provide the meals. Los Robles Regional Medical Center had been preparing all the food, but demand outpaced what the hospital’s kitchens could make, so Senior Concerns approached                                                                                                                                                    two Conejo Valley staples: Newbury Park’s Country Harvest restaurant and Westlake’s Brent’s Deli.

Country Harvest owners Chris DePalma and Matt Bovard jumped at the opportunity to help. The restaurant, which already had established relationships with some of the senior communities in the area, had started its own delivery program, but a partnership with Senior Concerns would give them a greater opportunity to serve longtime clients who had been loyal to the restaurant.

“Our senior community has been such a major part of Country Harvest for so long that it really is an honor for us to serve our seniors,” DePalma said. “It’s been very fulfilling, and I believe it is a huge part of our being able to keep a positive disposition through all of this.”

For Senior Concerns, there was also the issue of figuring out how to pay for it all. Even with volunteers helping pack and deliver meals, the food has to be purchased. For some of its funding, the organization works with the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging. Other money comes through the federal Great Plates program.

Senior Concerns’ help hasn’t stopped at food delivery. Over the year, the staff has been able to move some support programming online. They’ve hosted virtual forums with nationally known speakers and created COVID preparedness kits to hand out, which include a thermometer, pulse oximeter, cloth and disposable masks, gloves, antiseptic wipes, hand sanitizer and other items.

In the meantime, the staff is preparing the center to reopen, possibly in late summer or early fall. First the facility will be getting a new roof and HVAC system.

“Our goal is to make sure we can be the safest place possible when we reopen,” Gallagher said.

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