By Eliot Brody
In the days before Christmas, elderly residents in local affordable apartment buildings were treated to Christmas meals and gifts, organized by the buildings’ staff, local leaders and volunteers.
The Christmas events — at Tres Lomas Garden Apartments and Reflections on Yosemite, both in Eagle Rock — built on similar efforts at Thanksgiving to provide food, necessities, cheer and kindness to senior citizens whose isolation during the pandemic has seemed even deeper at the holidays.
On Dec. 17, staff at Tres Lomas were joined by volunteers to deliver holiday feasts, door-to-door, to each of the building’s 55 residents. The meals – ham, turkey, roasted vegetables, cornbread, mac and cheese, fruitcakes and cookies – were prepared by Ghaz Bazrafshan and her team at Dave’s Chillin N Grillin and paid for by City Councilmember Gil Cedillo’s Council District 1, the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council (ERNC) and Hope through Housing, the nonprofit organization that provides services at Tres Lomas.
The meal deliveries came with a dose of frivolity. Natashka Jones, the service coordinator at Tres Lomas and the event’s primary organizer, dressed as an elf to deliver the food, assisted by Doug Ardon Vasquez, the property manager for Tres Lomas, who dressed as Santa Claus. Among the many staff, volunteers and community members who assisted with the deliveries were Jesse Saucedo, the president of the ERNC, and Margaret Irwin, the director of the ERNC committee on aging neighbors.
The holiday treats also included gifts of houseplants, provided by the ERNC, and individually-written cards prepared by volunteer Akeime Mitterlehner, her family and friends, and her daughter’s high school speech and debate team. There was also a raffle of brand-new items including Brita water filters, hair grooming kits, quilts and other useful gifts, donated by Hope through Housing and National CORE, the nonprofit that owns the Tres Lomas building, in partnership with Amazon.
At Reflections on Yosemite, Christmas came on Dec. 23, when Service Coordinator Lily Campos turned the regular monthly grab-n-go luncheon into a Christmas special for the 100 residents. “They’re used to their tamales for Christmas, so [we ordered] tamales and champurrado [Mexican hot chocolate],” said Campos. Residents came three at a time to the holiday-festooned community room to pick up their meal packages. Gift packs included hot chocolate-making kits for the residents.
Service coordinators like Jones at Tres Lomas and Campos at Reflections usually work out of public view. But their efforts have received more attention during the pandemic. A recent Harvard study said that service coordinators in affordable housing developments have been “pivotal” in helping seniors “build resilience” in the face of COVID-19.
That’s certainly true at Tres Lomas and Reflections on Yosemite. Both Jones and Campos have coordinated with nonprofits, government sources, and/or food banks to make sure residents have enough food during the pandemic, as once simple errands — like taking the bus or getting a ride to the grocery store — have become challenges. Campos, who usually holds one food pantry event a month for Reflections residents, held two events in November and two in December, to make sure that food was plentiful and easy to access during the holidays.
“Some of the residents, they don’t have either cars or families, so by us providing a food pantry, it helps them very much — it’s very convenient for them,” Campos said.
Jones and Campos have also instituted weekly phone check ups to help keep up the spirits of residents who have found it harder to stay happy while isolated. Jones said a difficult new responsibility is requiring and reminding residents, who are otherwise granted independence, to wear masks and socially distance. Campos writes a regular newsletter to give updates and answer frequent questions about pandemic-related issues.
At the same time, service coordinators help residents maintain a semblance of normal life. Jones has helped the Tres Lomas residents continue their regular bingo games by arranging for social distancing and enhanced ventilation in the room where the game is played and keeping the game cards in individual sleeves. Jones also tipped off community volunteers that the Tres Lomas residents love to take care of plants, which is why the ERNC chose plants as their seasonal gifts.
The holidays of 2020 will forever be associated with the pain of the pandemic. But they will also be remembered for the efforts to counteract the pain, thanks to people like Jones and Campos and those who have joined them to help local senior citizens enjoy the season.
Eliot Brody, a senior at Occidental College, is a participant in the NELA Neighborhood Reporting Partnership, a collaboration between the Boulevard Sentinel and The Occidental campus newspaper. Brody is writing his senior thesis on housing for senior citizens.
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