By: Carolyn Yano, Program Volunteer

The quarantine and the closing of the Long Beach Japanese Cultural Center — imposed by the pandemic in 2020 — resulted in a temporary suspension of our center-based senior meal, social/ recreation program. Despite the obstacles we faced in adapting our program to this new reality and to continue serving our community’s elders, the volunteers of the Long Beach Japanese Cultural Center/Long Beach Pioneer Project felt that it was vital to sustain the connection with our participants and to continue to provide support to them. Three months into our Keiro funded grant year and the outset of the Pandemic, we made the decision to utilize all funds to bring meals to our members’ homes. We negotiated with several Japanese restaurants to prepare and begin deliveries in April.  Fiscal support from the Keiro grant enabled us to actually expand our services to twice weekly deliveries, each week of the month.  (We consulted with our core group — those who had participated in our program since the beginning — placed articles in the LBJCC newsletter and encouraged our group members to begin to identify those who may benefit from the program.) 

We faced additional challenges such as rebuilding social connections with modifications, maintaining personal interactions, and providing overall support without in-person contact and being able to utilize social media or virtual assists.  Each of our eight volunteers was assigned a number of older adults to call weekly.  Several months later, we began to send out hand written birthday and special occasion cards to observe their special events.  To raise morale, we created COVID-19 kits — consisting of masks, hand sanitizers, hand lotion, and nail files — and arranged for delivery with their meals. To further increase our presence in their lives, we created an illustrated exercise manual — based partly on Keiro’s fall prevention class and AARP exercises — which were printed and mailed out to the entire group, with a translated version to our Japanese speaking participants. We have also begun to publish a quarterly newsletter to disseminate information, update, and further enhance our communication within the group.

We began receiving referrals and inquiries, through word-of-mouth – many from those who were reluctant to come to the Center, and/or who were more seriously mobility and health compromised. An added benefit was the numbers of Japanese-speaking older adults who learned of our program and began participating. The telephone conversations between volunteers and senior participants also strengthened bonds and aided in developing individual and more personal relationships. Much of their personal histories and experiences shared through these calls were a vivid glimpse into the history of the Long Beach Japanese American community as well.

We were in awe of the spirit and resilience of our senior participants; their concern for others’ needs before their own – despite the isolation they were experiencing and the ever-present health risks. They never failed to express their appreciation for meal deliveries, for birthday cards, and the weekly calls from volunteers – according to Keiko Shibata, another dedicated volunteer.  Many of them remained amazingly active – working in their gardens, walking, reorganizing closets, etc.  We hope that our support contributed to keeping up their morale, and assisted them in coping as well.

The success and continuity of our meal delivery program is the result of the commitment and dedication of eight volunteers: an individual who maintains our financial records, one who tracks data weekly and juggles meal orders with four different providers, the creative “force” behind our handmade cards, letters, printing and mailing, our public relations and grant writer, as well as the volunteers who — without fail — call participants each week. The pandemic has required that we adapt and modify, however, it has also had the positive effect of strengthening our resolve to serve those community residents who may be most vulnerable. An undertaking, of any magnitude, requires the combined collaboration of many members of the community. It is inspiring to observe all the Japanese American churches and organizations rise to the challenge of overcoming the social isolation and limitations imposed by the pandemic — in the spirit of community unity and service.