Pre-pandemic, the community room of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Triangle Square senior housing complex would typically be filled with residents sharing a meal, watching a movie, or playing a game.
On a recent weekday morning, the only people inside the large room—now headquarters for Senior Pride Pantry—were volunteers Patrick Driscoll and Morgyn Utzman who were busy filling bags with groceries and other supplies that were to be delivered to senior clients.
“Did you ever work in a grocery store?” Driscoll (pictured, above) asked Utzman. “I’m trying to pack bags like you would at a grocery store.”
They are among the 60-plus volunteers who are the backbone of the Center’s Senior Angels program, an emergency delivery system that has been responsible for more than 1,000 packages being personally dropped off to those in need.
Utzman (pictured, above) began volunteering in June because working from home left her feeling disconnected and wanting to help others.
“I was looking for ways to remind myself that there’s a community out here while we’re all in quarantine,” she says. “It can be easy to stay in your own bubble when there’s a lot of need out here. It’s really rewarding to have a hand in feeding people and making their day and week a little easier.”
Tables inside the community room are stacked with cans of pantry staples including tuna, soup, beans, tomato sauce, and fruit cocktail as well as jars of peanut butter, bottles of Ensure and Boost nutritional shakes, cartons of almond milk, and cups of instant ramen noodles.
There is also an assortment of pet food, bars of soap, laundry detergent, toilet paper, paper towels, and disposable masks.
“The Angels are driving to Triangle Square and packaging items, which often include handwritten notes, and baked goods and then deliver those packages within 48 hours of a requested need,” explains the Center’s Director of Community Engagement Rani DeMesme-Anders. “These are volunteers who have really stepped up as first responders.”
Among the dedicated volunteers making deliveries each week is Andy Perez whose public relations work dried up during the pandemic.
“The Center pulled this together so quickly and are right there with a lifeline for the senior citizens—getting fresh produce, dry goods, toiletries, cleaning supplies,” Perez says. “When you meet these people and bring them their groceries, they are awash with relief because they are being cared for.”
He adds: “This is a point in our history where we all need to come together—especially for the most vulnerable in our community so getting involved with Senior Angels was a no-brainer for me. To be able to talk to people and see what kinds of things they need—groceries, cleaning supplies or toiletries—and bringing them to their doors is just an amazing experience.”
Safety Is Priority
Contactless delivery has helped to keep Center clients safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and has offset some of their financial burden during this difficult time.
Senior Angels works in concert with the Center’s Hello Club in which an army of volunteers regularly call a roster of more than 2,600 seniors to check in on them and to assess their needs.
Both programs were launched by the Center’s Volunteer Resources and Senior Services staff in the early days of the pandemic after in-person programs and activities had to be suspended.
“I was thinking all night, every night, about our seniors,” shares Kiera Pollock, director of Senior Services. “Seniors in general are very isolated. Our seniors are even more isolated and typically don’t reach out to non-LGBT organizations. Unless we jumped in, they weren’t going to have other kinds of connection.”
Pollock points out that 21% of seniors were experiencing food insecurity before the pandemic.
“Folks have far less resources than they did before, and the cost of food has not gone down,” she explains. “Many of our seniors were living week-to-week with groceries. They were running around to discount stores and farmers markets to get the best deals, and they can’t do that right now. It’s really important that we supplement these things as we are moving toward what is looking to be a much longer pandemic.”
Stephanie Harris, Senior Services activities coordinator and manager of the pantry, has encountered seniors crying on the phone because they are stressed at the prospect of having to go out into the world to shop.
“They are acutely aware of their risk level during this time,” she says. “We really want people to stay home and stay safe, especially since so many folks whom we serve are in that high risk category to become immunocompromised. It’s really imperative that they stay home. We want to help make that as easy for them as possible.”
Volunteer Barbara Friend praises the safe way the program is operated: “You call them at a social distance, pack groceries at a social distance, you drop off the groceries at a social distance. I love that there are so many opportunities to help in a safe and healthy way. You can just tell every time you drop groceries off that you have made someone’s day.”
Senior Clients Are Grateful
When the pandemic began, senior client Shannon Gosch couldn’t leave her apartment even if she wanted to. She had recently had an operation and was out of commission.
“I got a call from a volunteer who wanted to know if I needed anything. Then, the next day a fellow called to go over my requests. He ended the call by saying, ‘Have a beautiful day, Shannon,’” she recalls. “There are lovely people running the whole program—it’s just amazing. They are very attentive.”
Gosch said “a sweet delivery guy” dropped off the food and supplies a few days later. The box included some things she did not expect: homemade cookies, a mask, and a “Love is Universal” bumper sticker.
“I live in Alhambra, and it is amazing they will bring me things — even food for my cats Bala and Rama,” she shares. “I was so blown away to also get a handwritten note that said ‘We’re all in this together.’”
Another senior, Martha Avalos, has been housebound in her North Hollywood duplex during the pandemic. She’s disabled with diabetes and is hesitant to go out.
“The deliveries have been really good,” she says. “I’ve received bags filled with things like beans, canned food, fresh produce, and orange juice as well as supplies I really needed including toilet paper, masks, and soap. It was really, really good. They have been really, really nice and very helpful.”
In a thank you letter to Senior Services, a grateful Sydney Bristow uses adjectives like “uplifting” and “life-affirming” to describe his feelings about the Senior Angels program.
“The e-mail exchanges, seeing these volunteers, and receiving a small note which more or less says ‘you matter’ can do wonders for someone who lives alone and gets really lonely and depressed. I am more than grateful.”
Want to volunteer at the Center? Visit lalgbtcenter.org/volunteer.
For more information about the Center’s Senior Services, visit lalgbtcenter.org/seniors.