Although media coverage has focused on COVID-19’s impacts on businesses and schools, the pandemic also presents a major obstacle for nonprofits. Many organizations—even those providing critical services to at-risk groups—have been forced to go remote or even shut down altogether.
But one organization has continued to provide much needed in-person services for some of Sammamish’s most vulnerable residents—senior citizens.
Since 1997, Eastside Friends of Seniors (EFS) has helped Issaquah and Sammamish seniors remain independent in their own homes, and they have continued many of their services during the pandemic.
“Our clients are people who can take care of themselves, but they need help with the little things,” said Linda Woodall, EFS’s executive director.
The organization provides a variety of services including social calls, household chores, and grocery delivery. Due to the sparsity of public transportation in Sammamish, volunteer transportation is the number one request from seniors, many of whom can no longer drive.
Woodall estimates that at any given time, the program has 100 volunteers who are serving more than 200 seniors. While services are available to anyone over the age of 60, most seniors who use their services are 85 or older.
EFS is gradually approaching its pre-pandemic volume of work, and has adapted its procedures to keep seniors and volunteers safe. Volunteers don masks, wear gloves, use disinfectant wipes, and follow all guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If possible, vehicle windows are left open and passengers sit in the back seat to keep their distance from the driver.
Before the pandemic, volunteers would accompany seniors into stores and help them with everyday struggles like reaching top shelves in their homes. Now, volunteers have shifted to solo grocery shopping and delivery. EFS has also added a few more services to its repertoire, including a telephone buddy list to combat pandemic-induced isolation, as well as registration and transportation for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Woodall said her organization can assist with these “little things” and prevent those with fixed incomes from having to choose between medicine, transportation and groceries.
“Because our services exist, people are able to stay in their homes longer,” she said.
Often, seniors who enlist to receive EFS’s services stay with the program for over five years before they enter a care-facility or move closer to family. Others may contact EFS for one-off services, such as a ride to a COVID-19 vaccination.
John “Jack” Wishart, 93, has both volunteered and received assistance from the organization. Wishart immigrated to the United States from Ireland with his wife and three children in 1964, and has lived in Sammamish since 1970. After his wife passed away in 2010, Wishart began living alone and enjoys periodic visits from his son and daughter, who live in Fall City and Whidbey Island respectively.
When asked why he likes to live in Sammamish, he said, “It’s quiet, it’s clean, and I can walk the roads without getting run over. There’s not a lot of traffic around and people are very friendly.”
Wishart volunteered as a driver for EFS between 2010 and 2011. After breaking his arm in 2018, he could no longer drive himself around and reconnected with EFS for help with yard work and transportation.
“I had an invasion of three cleaning ladies here a couple of weeks ago, actually, and they came in and found dust and dirt everywhere and they had the place sparkling after two hours of work,” said Wishart. “And last year I was fortunate in getting an invasion of young people who were keen on digging up weeds and power washing my driveway and the sidewalk and so forth like that, so I have been more than cared for, actually.”
Wishart has found EFS to be a much better alternative to taxi services and public transportation.
His sentiments are echoed by EFS volunteers, who have found it to be a flexible and meaningful commitment to their community. Before the pandemic, many volunteers were themselves retired and volunteered into their 80s. Now, due to safety concerns, the age distribution skews lower, with many volunteers in their 40s and 50s.
Friends Gina Broel, 50, and Tina Patel, 45, have been volunteering with EFS for four months.
“We definitely get as much if not more out of it than they (seniors) do,” said Broel. “One of the really cool parts of this program is just getting to know a lot of these seniors in the community.”
Patel explains that in addition to helping seniors maintain their independence, the experience is extremely rewarding for volunteers, who get to form relationships and hear so many stories from the “incredible lives that seniors lead.”
Both Broel and Patel can recall fascinating conversations with their passengers. They have learned about everything from childhood during World War II in Prague to a rider’s experiences writing a novel about Japanese internment camps. One rider even gave a full history of the Sammamish area.
“You learn something new every ride,” said Patel.