Friday, January 22, 2021     Volume: 21, Issue: 47
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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on January 13th, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 46 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 46

VOLUNTEERS 2021

By SUN STAFF

Santa Barbara County Foodbank volunteers reflect back on what it was like to serve the community during unprecedented times of need

BY MALEA MARTIN


STEPPING UP
Santa Barbara County Foodbank volunteers stepped up to meet the unprecedented needs of community members during the COVID-19 pandemic.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JACQUELINE PILAR

Sherri Ederer started volunteering at The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County about a year and a half ago, meaning she was well-acquainted with what typical operations looked like pre-pandemic. So when the public health crisis began to take hold, the sudden increased need for food bank services was striking.

“I tend to sign up for pre-pack, which is where every bag is packed the same,” Ederer said, explaining that they were only doing that a couple of days a week before COVID-19 came around.

“Then once this happened we were doing it every single day,” she continued. “There was a second warehouse they had to lease to accommodate the amount of bags we were having to produce. So all day, every day, sometimes twice a day, they were having pre-packs.”

Ederer’s experience isn’t just anecdotal; it’s evident in the numbers. The food bank’s Backyard Bounty program, for example, harvested 122,000 pounds of food for distribution in 2019. In 2020, the figure was more than 200,000 pounds.

“I noticed, just the number of them that we were making,” Ederer said of the food bags she was packing during her volunteer shifts. “At that second warehouse, we were doing 1,000-plus each time we were there, and we’ve never done that much before.”

As a pre-pandemic volunteer, Ederer also witnessed the large influx in community members who stepped up to devote part of their day to the food bank once stay-at-home orders came down in March 2020. In 2019, the food bank had 1,543 volunteers. In 2020, that number rose to 2,142. Volunteers served 17,817 hours in 2019, and 26,615 in 2020.

“A number of people were out of jobs, and they were like, ‘What can I do with my time now?’” Ederer recalled. “So they started volunteering with the food bank to help out. Those were the people I met and got to listen to their stories. The National Guard came in, so getting to know them, seeing them dive in and run this entire thing was incredible. The number of people who stood up, and stepped up, to help was impressive.”

Like Ederer, Patsy Aguirre is also an experienced food bank volunteer, having devoted part of her time to the organization for the past four years. She’s witnessed the impact that new health guidelines and precautions had on the food bank’s ability to keep up with increased demand.

“There was definitely more packing,” Aguirre said. “Then the hand sanitizer, the masks, the temperature taking, only so many people in a room, so that was definitely a big difference.”

Another change was needing more volunteer delivery drivers than before, since vulnerable populations needed to stay home.

“So we would pack food, and then they needed lots of drivers to deliver the food because the people who needed the food usually were older,” she said.

Aguirre had volunteered as a food bank delivery driver in the past through its Brown Bag Program, which delivers groceries and produce to seniors. It was always fulfilling to be able to go have a face-to-face conversation with the folks she delivered to. 

“Some of the bags are heavy so they would invite you in to drop them off at the counters. They were happy to have someone there to talk to, so I would talk to them for 10, 15 minutes,” Aguirre said of pre-pandemic drop-offs. “So it’s a little more disappointing now because you just have to drop it and walk away.”

Despite not being able to get those meaningful interactions during deliveries that she enjoyed before COVID-19, Aguirre said she continues to find fulfillment in knowing she’s making a difference. 

“It always puts things in perspective, if you’re having a tough day or you think in your life something’s going wrong, and then you go to the food bank, you realize, OK, well I have a roof over my head and food in my belly,” Aguirre said. “So it is neat to realize that you help people in a big way, you’re giving them something that they need. Not want, they need.”

Ederer said COVID-19 has brought a new level of fulfillment to her work at the food bank.

“I loved working at the food bank. I thought it was fun, and everyone was so nice,” she said. “But it wasn’t until COVID hit that I actually felt, this is meaningful work. Everybody needs help right now in some way, whether it be food or whatever. And I felt like the work I was doing was needed and it mattered.”

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@santamariasun.com.


Volunteer programs geared toward at-risk populations were hit hard by COVID-19 safety restrictions designed to protect their clients

BY KASEY BUBNASH


A NEW KIND OF SUPPORT
In pre-pandemic times, volunteers at nonprofits like Wilshire Health and Community Services provided transportation and emotional support services to homebound seniors in SLO and Santa Barbara counties.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER KAPLAN

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit locally in March 2020, Central Coast Home Health and Hospice had almost 70 volunteers on its roster who helped provide much-needed companionship and respite to hospice patients and their loved ones. Now the program is almost nonexistent. 

The activities and services offered through the Central Coast Home Health and Hospice volunteer program vary depending on a patient’s needs and the volunteers involved, but Volunteer Coordinator Nicki Tempesta said the overarching goal is to provide some comfort, compassion, and friendship during a difficult time in a client’s life. Volunteers often take wheelchair-bound patients out for walks or to see the ocean, they read to patients, play games with them, write dictated letters for them, or do little chores around the house. 

About half of Central Coast Home Health and Hospice patients reside in assisted living facilities, Tempesta said, and the other half live at home, where they’re typically cared for by loved ones. Volunteers also offer services to those loved ones, taking over care responsibilities for them for a few hours each week so that they have time to get out of the house, run errands, rest, and generally take a break from the responsibilities of being a caretaker. 

Whatever it might be, it’s important work to the patients in need and their families. 

“But it’s all stuff that’s nearly impossible to do without being able to be physically present with a patient,” she told the Sun

Like many organizations that serve populations particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 forced Central Coast Home Health and Hospice to rethink its services. A number of local nonprofits and companies that typically provide volunteer-powered aid to seniors, individuals experiencing homelessness, and those who are immunocompromised had to drastically alter their volunteer programs or halt their operations completely. 

The Community Action Partnership of SLO, which employs volunteers to help at its senior Adult Day Center, at the 40 Prado Homeless Services Center, and with its child care programs, suspended most of its volunteer efforts early on in the pandemic. The same is true at Central Coast Home Health and Hospice, where Tempesta said the volunteer program is still almost entirely on hold. 

While the in-home health services the company provides are considered medically essential, Tempesta said the emotional support volunteers offer is not. 

Senior living facilities, for good reason, have been particularly strict about who is allowed to visit—Tempesta said it’s almost a year into the pandemic, and some still don’t allow in-person visits from family members and certain therapists. Volunteers have never been a high priority on the entry list. Every time it seems like things are getting better and cases of COVID-19 are going down, Tempesta develops a plan to bring volunteers back for some in-person work, and cases surge again. 

“It’s like doing the Hokey Pokey,” she said. 

Initially, Tempesta said Central Coast Home Health and Hospice developed a big online training program for its volunteers, and they started making phone calls or writing letters to patients in lieu of in-person visits. Though some are still making those calls, she said they pretty quickly discovered that a lot of their seniors struggle to hear over the phone, or they aren’t strong enough to respond via writing. And one of the biggest services volunteers offer—respite to loved ones who care for seniors—just isn’t something you can do virtually. 

Tempesta said the COVID-19 safety precautions are completely necessary, but it’s a huge loss for her patients and their families. 

“It’s just tragic that we have patients in facilities that their contact with the outside world is so limited,” she said. “To have your whole world be within four walls that no one is able to come into, I can only imagine how lonely that must be.” 

Volunteers at Wilshire Health and Community Services, a nonprofit that also provides home health and hospice care to residents of SLO and Santa Barbara counties, are facing similar challenges. 

Jennifer Kaplan is Wilshire’s administrative services coordinator, and she said similar to Central Coast Home Health and Hospice, Wilshire’s volunteers have historically worked with patients face-to-face. Some drive homebound seniors to medical appointments, church services, grocery stores, and banks. Some stop in for weekly hangouts with lonely patients in their homes and in assisted living facilities, and other volunteers do chores for seniors in need. 

“So all of it was in person,” Kaplan said. “And our volunteer training and orientations—everything we do is in person.” 

That changed in March 2020, but Kaplan said it quickly became clear that halting Wilshire’s volunteer programs entirely wasn’t an option. As Wilshire grappled with how to provide these traditionally face-to-face services at all, it also saw a major increase in need. 

“We’ve always been busy, but this is the busiest we’ve ever been,” she said. 

Wilshire already had hundreds of clients prior to the pandemic, and now Kaplan said the nonprofit receives about 30 to 40 referrals for new clients and about 145 requests for services from existing clients each month. 

The biggest spike was among at-risk seniors in need of groceries and pharmaceuticals delivered. Though volunteers used to take clients along for the ride, all of that is now done through contactless deliveries. Kaplan said major safety precautions are taken when clients need transportation to medical appointments or the bank. 

Face-to-face check-ins aren’t really possible right now either, but Kaplan said Wilshire developed phone call and pen pal programs to help volunteers stay in contact with Wilshire’s patients throughout the pandemic. Wilshire also transitioned to phone counseling and started doing all of its volunteer training online. 

It’s been a tough few months, but Kaplan said her team is making it work. What’s helped the most, she said, is having so many community members volunteer their time to Wilshire for the first time. Roughly 90 new volunteers have started at Wilshire since March. The focus the pandemic has put on seniors, she said, has made it so that more people than ever are really thinking about how they can help protect and support that population. 

“I think people in our community really wanted to help,” Kaplan said. “It’s something as simple as picking up some grocery items and dropping them off. It’s contactless.”

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@newtimesslo.com.










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