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Seniors Who Volunteer Confront California's New Coronavirus Precautions

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Adela Salomon, pictured last year, has been a volunteer at the Downey First Christian Church food bank for several years. (Chava Sanchez / LAist)
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Seniors are a big part of the volunteer workforce that keeps nonprofits running. But what happens now that Californians 65 and older are being told to stay home in light of the novel coronavirus crisis?

In the past few days since Gov. Gavin Newsom called for the self-isolation of seniors, community organizations have been trying to navigate the guidance for senior citizens who make up a large part of their volunteer corps.

In Anaheim, a group of dedicated seniors runs the St. Vincent de Paul Service Center at St. Boniface Catholic Church. Monday through Friday, they hand out groceries to individuals and families in need, and cook meals for the local homeless population three days a week.

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The entire staff is over the age of 60, said volunteer Maritza Bushman, who’s 70 years old. (Full disclosure: Bushman is the mother of KPCC producer Monica Bushman.)

“We usually have canned food, dry food. We also have bread and sometimes meat,” she said. “There are people in so much need.”

RISING DEMAND, SIDELINE VOLUNTEERS

But despite the demand for aid, which will likely rise as COVID-19 effects ripple through the economy, the service center is preparing to serve its last meal on Tuesday night, for the time being. With COVID-19 spreading in communities and older people especially at risk, it's becoming impossible to safely staff the center.

“The priest says we should close because we’re all seniors and we are putting ourselves in danger,” Bushman said.

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The center is working to let clients know about other food pantries in the area, but it’s hard for volunteers like Bushman and her husband, John Bushman, 82, to step back in the middle of a crisis. She told me:

“My husband was having a very difficult time, because we feel like there are people that need us. More now than ever.”

Bushman is hopeful to be back, serving her community as soon as it’s safe.

ADAPTING TO THE TIMES

Other senior-driven organizations are able to adapt to health experts' recommendations for older people to self-isolate. The L.A.-based anti-war nonprofit Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace usually meets every Friday morning.

“We love being in community. We love being together, talking and sharing food,” said chairman Stephen Rohde.

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But that’s not possible in this time of social distancing and special precautions for vulnerable seniors. “With all of the advisories, we’ve decided to conduct all of our Friday meetings by Zoom and teleconference,” he said.

This has meant a learning curve for some older members — installing apps and getting comfortable with new technology. “We’re eager to make the best of it by drawing speakers from around the country and around the world.”

“I was a proud Luddite for many years, but with the help of my family, I’ve moved into the modern era,” Rohde said. “We’re hoping to train and coach members to use the new technology, which could help them in many ways.”

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