By Greg Hernandez
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit with full force in mid-March, many of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s senior clients immediately found themselves stuck at home without much contact with the outside world.
They had become accustomed, during the previous 12 months, to being served a hot lunch by the Center’s Culinary Arts program and participating in other programs and activities at the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Senior Center on the Anita May Rosenstein Campus.
Nowadays, they are worried about how to get groceries and essential supplies safely and, simultaneously, coping with unexpected isolation.
To help the seniors get through this challenging time, the Center’s Volunteer Resources and Senior Services staff quickly created the Hello Club to provide human contact virtually. A growing army of volunteers regularly call a roster of more than 2,600 senior members to check in on them and to assess their needs.
“Many of our clients have been staying home for their safety — that’s what we want them to do. But that’s really isolating and can be lonely,” points out Stephanie Harris, Senior Services activities coordinator. “We check up on people — and not just clients who we interfaced with every day in the Senior Center or at Triangle Square. We are reaching out to folks who might have never come into the Senior Center but have accessed our services in other ways. Those people matter to us, too. Hello Club enables us to reach out to as many people as possible.”
Hello Club was able to launch five months ago with a grant from The Eisner Foundation that helped with start-up costs. Since then, more than 100 volunteers have taken to the phones and made more than 5,000 calls. They can connect seniors to case management or to the Center’s Senior Angels grocery and essential delivery service, when needed.
“The Hello Club has also evolved into a social program with more than 300 seniors receiving bi-weekly calls from a volunteer to chat, to check in, and to reaffirm that the Center is indeed family,” explains Director of Community Engagement Rani DeMesme-Anders.
One of those seniors, Susan Phelan, describes those calls from Hello Club volunteers as “precious.”
“I don’t have family. My friends are my family, and they do check with me. But a fresh voice and a connection with the Center are real important to me,” Phelan says. “The phone calls I’ve gotten have been really sweet, and they really do brighten my day. Just to have someone check in, it’s a really smart thing to do for your senior people — especially now. It is scary.”
Volunteers say they feel the gratitude and grasp the importance of their work.
“A lot of times, I’ve been told that I made someone’s day—and it means a lot to me,” says volunteer Gina Cho. “It makes me feel really sad when I have a conversation with a senior who says they don’t have a great support system. They used to go to the Center in person, and they can’t do that anymore. But they said the Hello Club has been helpful.”
“There are challenging conversations sometimes with people who feel lonely and feel like they need mental health help,” Cho added. “I’m really happy to be able to put them in touch with someone at the Center who can get them connected to those resources.”
Another volunteer, Jeff, says making seniors aware of pantry food, other supplies, and various Center services is only one part of what makes Hello Club so valuable.
“I’m mostly a listener, and people have great stories to tell and really appreciate having someone to engage with,” he says. “It might be memories about a partner or a job they want to share.”
Want to volunteer at the Center? Visit lalgbtcenter.org/volunteer.
For more information about the Center’s Senior Services, visit lalgbtcenter.org/seniors.