The Otomodachi Outreach Program began at the First Presbyterian Church, Altadena in 2018, with the purpose of reconnecting members who have been inactive for years with old friends and with the church. And it all began with a phone book.

The Otomodachi Outreach Program is more than bible study groups, luncheons, and movie nights. It facilitates personal contacts with other through phone calls, house visits, rides, and social outings which ultimately lead to great conversations – but perhaps most importantly, it re-establishes relationship and creates unexpected friendships. In addition to making weekly phone calls or sending special Valentine’s Day cards, program managers Janie Inouye and Dorothy Kirkland, along with Committee Members Nancy Castillo, Gini Ishida, Bob and Mae Uchida, say they ultimately help their older adults reconnect with old friends or inspire them to make new friendships.

“I personally have built some truly amazing relationships with some people that I didn’t expect at all,” Dorothy says, with a smile. “It’s an unexpected blessing.”

A Keiro grant helped jump-start the outreach program, in an effort to identify and help their community’s most vulnerable older adults. Since then, the program’s Otomodachi Committee encourages others to join in and broaden the program’s mission to include others, not only at their church, but also within the community at large.

A Recipe for Community

“We first wanted to take care of our older adults in church and in the community, making sure they knew we were thinking of them and that they’re not alone,” Janie says.

They started with the church’s old phone book, spending hours going line by line through the names, and asking the question, “What is the status of this person and why don’t we know?”

“I give credit to the grant application process that prompted us to find out why we have lost contact with some of our members who were no longer coming to church or events,” Dorothy says. “The Keiro grant really helped us focus on older adults who were missing in action, with whom we have lost contact. Most have very good reasons (physical issues, no longer drive, living in a care facility, etc.)”

As they leafed through the phone book, making contact with individuals, this began weave together a more complete understanding of the challenges their older members face. Why were these folks no longer participating in church or community events? Did they lack a mode of transportation? Were they perhaps non-ambulatory, or hard of hearing? Encountering language barriers? But more importantly, what could be done to correct this situation?

Throughout the grant process, and with help from their own volunteers, the program identified older adults who were or may be at-risk for social isolation and unique ways to strategically match members with friends and volunteers as a way to engage and build relationships. 

The group has since modernized, moving from old phone books to an online spreadsheet for program members to update. The spreadsheet shares information with other volunteers, noting who received a call or a visit, and a summary of what they did. The spreadsheet helps everyone stay connected and organized.

Janie and Dorothy

New And Newer Friends

The Otomodachi Outreach Program has also reconnected several old friends and helped sparked new groups within the community as well.

For instance, Dorothy says one of the church’s older adults, a 98-year-old woman, shared a story about a bible study she used to host at her home. As she experienced some physical injuries, she became unable to host the group, but stated how she missed this fellowship.

Dorothy, inspired by this conversation, helped re-establish the fellowship, and coordinated with other older adults to again meet at her home. Now there are about seven regular members who make an effort to meet, spending time talking about their faith, and catching up with one another.

“They really appreciate this time together,” she says.

And sometimes members within the program skip the volunteers entirely. Dorothy says she introduced two older adults who now make their own arrangements to socialize with each other without the help of Otomodachi.

“It’s kind of like a matchmaker with friends,” Dorothy says, laughing. “They’re always asking about the other when I call!” But now, they don’t need a matchmaker any longer.

Outreach Next Steps

Janie and Dorothy have great expectations for the Otomodachi Outreach Program. They hope to eventually extend the program to other religious groups and cultural centers throughout the community.

“We want to be integrated with the community,” Janie says.

Right now, she and the other volunteers face several challenges. Driving older adults can sometimes require special accommodations, and at times just coordinating multiple schedules can be tough. 

But they say Keiro has been a help through the process. Whether it’s connecting members to the right resources or providing the needed information, they say the program is working.

Over the past several months, the Otomodachi Outreach Program discovered a whole population within the church that slowly was disappearing because of a variety of reasons. Through Keiro’s resources and grant program, people like Janie and Dorothy are working to address issues of social isolation by bringing these older adults back into the community, one phone call at a time.