Westsiders rise up to get essentials where they’re needed most

By Stephanie Bell and Christina Campodonico

Meals on Wheels executive director Chris Baca teamed up with Kate Farms’ Austin Light and John Hommeyer to bring nourishing plant-based shakes to local seniors

Last Wednesday, LA County launched the Critical Delivery Service Program. The temporary program, administered by the Los Angeles County Department of Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services, offers home delivery of groceries and other essential items to seniors and disabled adults homebound by the county’s Safer at Home order. (Call 888-863-7411 to visit wdacs.lacounty.gov to learn more.)

But even before the CDS went into effect, local non-profits and grassroots organizations across West LA have been hard at work on initiatives to get food and other essential items on the tables of people who might have trouble or be at risk when going out — seniors, students, disabled people, the immunocompromised and quarantined. While these community organizations serve different demographics, many are providing comfort to those in need by running simple yet heroic errands, lending a listening ear and creating a sense of community even in the midst of social distancing becoming the new normal.

“It’s definitely been a community effort,” said J Gonzalez, Senior Branch Director of The Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Monica’s Mar Vista Branch, who is leading the club in providing supplemental meals for local youth. “What I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks is people coming together for the betterment of the community. …. It’s not one organization or one person. It’s everyone pulling their weight and making it happen.”

To help seniors and those in need of food and other essential services, we’ve compiled the stories of community organizations offering front-door grocery and meal delivery, pharmaceutical pickups, friendly phone calls, and much more.

All Together LA

Ninety-year-old Eve Berman was active in her Santa Monica community before the Safer at Home order. She frequently took yoga classes and met friends for lunch, but has been scared to go to the grocery store —overwhelmed by the long lines, crowds of people, lack of parking and overall anxiety of going out with the state of things right now.

“I’m really afraid to go there right now,” she said, recalling her last visit to the market over two weeks ago. “It was such a madhouse! The atmosphere was not pleasant.

“I came home, and I nearly collapsed. I didn’t even want to unpack my groceries.”

But thanks to All Together LA (formerly Santa Monica Helpers), Berman has Jessica Turner to help her get her groceries safely to her door. Turner, a volunteer and the leadership team member for All Together LA, said she hadn’t known much about the seniors in her community before the crisis and is enjoying building relationships through volunteering.

“You very quickly build a relationship with them, which you wouldn’t in other circumstances because you have to understand who they are, what they need, and how they live,” said Turner, who shops for Eve during her visits to the grocery store. “The first time you deliver to someone, it’s very sweet because they’re incredibly grateful.”

Instead of connecting seniors and volunteers through an online platform like Facebook or Nextdoor, All Together LA has a hotline that citizens of Santa Monica, Venice, Mar Vista, and Marina del Rey can call to leave a message with their request. Within 24 hours, the caller will be matched with a volunteer who lives nearby and can meet their needs.

“There’s not many seniors on Nextdoor and Facebook, that’s not how they access help in this world,” said Turner. “They need to see a friendly face and to hear someone and feel reassured right now when everything that they’re hearing from the news and the media is terrifying.”

Berman expressed how grateful she is to have someone like Turner to help her during this time. “She calls me at the same time to make arrangements and ask me what I need,” said Berman. “She has been so wonderful and so dependable.”

The feeling of admiration is mutual, even though interactions are short and from six feet apart.

“Being connected to someone who needs your help because they don’t have help right now is incredibly rewarding,” said Turner.

To access services from All Together LA or volunteer, visit AllTogether.LA or call (323) 310-0411.

Westside Pacific Villages and the Rotary Club of Westchester have donated sack lunches to area seniors as part of a senior support coalition to aid the elderly during COVID-19 (Photo courtesy of Westside Pacific Villages)

Westchester Rotary & Westside Pacific Villages

With support from Councilmember Mike Bonin’s office, the Rotary Club of Westchester, YMCA Westchester, Culver Palms Meals on Wheels, and many other community organizations have come together to create a senior support coalition to help the elderly during this unprecedented time.

Led by the membership-based non-profit group Westside Pacific Villages, the emergency response program is called WPV Cares. It provides services to seniors in the community, including meal delivery, grocery runs, essential-errand runs, and check-in calls through its Call a Neighbor (CAN) program.

Access to WPV usually requires a yearly membership fee, but now they are offering free access to the benefits of the network. The program allows all seniors in Westchester, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista and Marina del Rey free access to the benefits of the Westside Pacific Village network. WPV is extending its support to Mar Vista, Del Rey, Culver City, Venice and Ladera Heights as well.

“We wanted to reach more seniors who weren’t members of WPV and ensure that they had the resources they need,” said Darlene Fukuji, President of the Westchester Rotary. “For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been donating the lunches that we would eat at the Crown Plaza and delivering them to the seniors in a very careful way. … We want to make sure that the seniors know about this, and it’s all free for them.”

“WPV is thrilled to offer our existing program and service to the oldest residents in our community for free during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Carol Kitabayashi, Executive Director at WPV. “Now more than ever, we want to help protect and ensure the most vulnerable older adult population continues to get the essentials they need, including staying socially connected (virtually, of course). This has been our mission for nearly 10 years now, and will continue to be after the crisis is over.”

To access services from WPV Cares or volunteer, visit theWPV.org, call (310) 695-7030, or email WPVCares@thewpv.org.

Westside Friends

As soon as Mar Vista resident Annie Bickerton realized that COVID-19 was becoming “something that was going to impact people’s lives,” she teamed up with fellow Westsider Cristin Lim, a freelance designer, to create Westside Friends.

Since March, the grassroots mutual aid organization serving West Los Angeles has been helping match local volunteers with those who need a helping hand. The group’s approximately 400 volunteers have delivered groceries to homebound seniors, picked up much-needed medications for COVID-19 sufferers in quarantine, moved cars for disabled persons and have also arranged friendly check-in phone calls between neighbors, all while following public health recommendations for contactless interactions.

“Some people have written to us and said, you know, ‘I’m having surgery in a week. I’d really love just to know that there’s someone I check in with in case I need something or just to make sure I’m doing okay,’” says Bickerton. “In the last couple of weeks, [we’ve] also added a component where people can become apartment or block captains, which basically means that they’re just willing to leave notes in mailboxes or taped to doors for their neighbors with their contact information, introducing themselves and being a point person.”

The 33-year-old policy researcher was also inspired to create a grassroots-driven response to COVID-19 after seeing the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in the greater New York City area while she was a grad student.

“I couldn’t go to class for three weeks. I had a car with a full tank of gas, which was very hard to come by at the time. I ended up spending a couple of days driving around volunteers to and from the Rockaways, where there were a lot of seniors stranded and people stranded in public housing… who really desperately needed supplies,” she recalls. “It was really horrifying that a city like that didn’t have a response. … And it was just people creating a network and a supply chain to get things and move people around.”

Bickerton hopes that Westside Friends can fill in the gaps where more massive bureaucracies or agencies may fall short.

“This kind of emergency response is something that government has a hard time doing. And a lot of people look to public officials or large organizations, but they may not be able to adapt as quickly,” she says. “We really need to find positive ways to come together rather than just getting afraid and walling ourselves off.”

To access services or volunteer, call (213) 785-2052 or visit westsidefriends.com.

The Del Rey Neighborhood Council

In the spirit of being neighborly, the Del Rey Neighborhood Council has been pointing people in the direction of city and county resources such as senior meal delivery/pickup services and programs that provide aid with issues of evictions and rent increases. Through Westside Friends, DRNC has also started a network of volunteers in the Del Rey community, who can deliver groceries and pick up prescriptions for anyone in need, with a primary focus on grocery delivery.

“We’re here to help anyone in the community who needs anything at all,” said Matt Wersinger, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council. “We have been very active thus far in doing daily deliveries that are going straight to kids that are not getting a meal at school, and also, we’re working with some other partners to get stuff to seniors.”

So far, the DRNC has been working with the Mar Vista Gardens housing project to supply hundreds of meals per day to students and seniors there, and all of DRNC’s services are following social distancing procedures.

“Everything that is happening is being done safely,” said Wersinger. “We have been doing everything contactless and keeping distance between people.”

The majority of the work being done by DRNC is voluntary.

“We are always here to serve the community, and we do a tremendous amount on a daily basis in normal times,” said Wersinger, “but I think a time like this calls for all community organizations to step up and do everything they can to help people in need.”

To volunteer or receive help from the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, email board@delreync.org.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Monica (Mar Vista Branch)

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Monica’s Mar Vista Branch is working with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), the Helper Foundation, the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, and the Gomes Family Food Bank to provide meals to youth, disabled and senior citizens in local communities.

The Boys and Girls Clubs provides hot meals and snacks for pickup at 3 p.m. Monday through Friday (4901 Marionwood Drive, Culver City) to supplement meals provided by Los Angeles Unified School District at Community Resource Centers in the morning.

“We saw that LAUSD was closing shop at about 11 a.m. daily, which left a gap in nutrition and food for our kids in our community after that time,” said J Gonzalez, who directs the Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Monica’s Mar Vista branch.

As a community-based organization, the staff at the Boys and Girls Clubs have built strong relationships with many families that come through their doors. Their close bonds helped them find out what families needed most after the Safer at Home order was enacted.

“We found out that food was a huge part of that because many of our families were losing their jobs,” said Gonzales. “Now they have their 4 or 5 kids at home to feed everyday.

“What motivates us is making sure that high-risk communities have available resources. At the very least, nutrition and food for their families,” added Gonzalez. “In the darkness of everything that’s happening, the light at the end of the tunnel that I’m seeing is everyone coming together to help as much as possible.”

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Monica plan to provide up to 500 meals a day, and they are currently brainstorming virtual and remote programming for their youth.

To access these services visit the Boys and Girls Clubs’ Mar Vista branch at 4901 Marionwood Drive, Culver City or call (310) 397-8290.

Meals on Wheels West

Meals on Wheels West has delivered meals to seniors, vets, the disabled, chronically ill, and anyone homebound who can’t shop or cook for themselves since 1974, but since the Safer at Home order went into effect in mid-March demand for delivered meals has grown considerably.

“We’ve seen the number of people we deliver to grow by 25%,” said Meals on Wheels West executive director Chris Baca. “And we’re going to see that continue to grow.”

Demand is so high that the non-profit has had to swap its weekday hot meals for frozen ones, but stepping in to boost Meals on Wheels’ nutrition plan is Kate Farms. The Santa Barbara-based startup, which specializes in plant-based meal replacement shakes for seniors and individuals with gastrointestinal and autoimmune disorders, has partnered with Meals on Wheels to deliver 100,000 meals in California. On April 1, the two organizations paired up to distribute Kate Farms’ plant-based shakes to Meals on Wheels West clients in the Santa Monica area.

“We’re a for-profit business, but we’re really a non-profit at heart,” said John Hommeyer, Kate Farms’ Chief Experience Officer, citing how the company had donated its product to first responders following fires and hurricanes. The company was founded by two parents determined to save their daughter (now thriving) with cerebral palsy from dire malnutrition.

“Right now, seniors are more at risk with COVID-19. You’ve seen the mortality rates for people 70-plus,” said Hommeyer. “That’s concerning. … We thought about what we could do to help out.”

In Meals on Wheels West, they found a community partner to do just that.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic locally, Meals on Wheels West has taken precautions to ensure the safety of staff, volunteers, clients and deliveries. At the office where volunteers meet to load up meals, “there’s tape on the ground, and you stand six feet apart,” said Baca. Volunteers are given face masks and gloves to wear and must stand six feet back after leaving deliveries on a table or doorknob and knocking on the door.

“We’ve instituted a whole new process,” said Baca.

But the spirit of Meals on Wheels remains the same, even if volunteers have to stand six feet back and clients can’t quite see their smiles.

“It’s about delivering more than a meal,” said Baca. “It’s about alleviating loneliness and isolation. … We make sure that people still feel connected to the community.”

To access these services or volunteer, call (310) 394-5133 ext. 6, email ashely@mealsonwheelswest.org, or visit mealsonwheelswest.org.

If you’re an organization doing good work for the community, email ccampodonico@timespublications.com.