The Harvesters Senior Ministry

What began over 26 years ago as a traveling group for adults who were 55 years old and older, is now a group with a new purpose. Today, the Harvesters Senior Ministry at West Covina Christian Church (WCCC) advocates for its older adult members who experience, or who are at risk of social isolation and loneliness. The Ministry still plans excursions, but now it organizes a food and fellowship hot lunch program, ride share programs, a Compassion Ministry for shut-ins, and seminars.

Recognizing and Addressing Social Isolation

As past Keiro Grant recipients, they said it’s a work in progress but are finding ways to stay involved in the lives of those who have reported feeling various levels of loneliness. According to a church survey, 95% of respondents reported experiencing feelings ranging from mildly to very lonely.

The Harvesters Senior Ministry has been a recipient of the Keiro Grant Program for the first three cycles. Their leaders have shared that this Ministry, with the help of the Grant Program, has become a work in progress. Becoming aware of social isolation and loneliness is one thing. Acting upon these conditions in a meaningful way is a never-ending effort. One survey of 25 church widows showed that 95% of them experienced mild to severe levels of loneliness. Since 2017, co-chairs Audrey Sakamoto, Michael Tanaka, and their fellow committee members worked with their 89-member Harvesters Group. They have directed their efforts to reduce social isolation and loneliness among their most vulnerable members, which include the widows, the caregivers of aging parents and adult children, convalescing spouses, and older single adults.

Overcoming Enryo through Connection Card Program

Both Audrey and Michael believe that some members may feel hesitant to ask for help or attend programs because of cultural stigmas. Michael offered, “I think we as a committee are recognizing that we are finding, through friendships and interactions, that people are opening up and becoming less reluctant to accept help.”

Initially Audrey explained how members had feelings of “not wanting to impose on others, or they did not want others to know of their struggles. It has been a challenge to overcome those strongly embedded cultural values that ‘they can do it on their own.’”

The Church’s “Connection Card” Program works towards making members feel included. On Sundays, the “Cards” are made readily available so that members can self-identify, if they need help – especially for loneliness or social isolation. Once collected, a pastor or a member of the Compassion Care Committee will reach out to make a connection with this person. Michael said that “these connections have helped ‘break the hard shell of enryo’, and have encouraged people to open up.”

Celebration of nonagenarians in 2018 (Courtesy: West Covina Christian Church)

Expanding to Address Mobility and Accessibility

A WCCC survey discovered that 70% of the widows group have a medical condition which affects their degree of mobility.

The Keiro Grant has also helped the Harvesters’ Ministry focus on the transportation needs of older adults who are isolated at home. Volunteers carpool to help some older members get to their medical and personal appointments, or groceries. Gasoline expenses are reimbursed.

Harvesters assist some of the older members to learn to use Uber. Audrey explained that the ride share program does more than addressing isolation for its older members. She said, “Some drivers and riders have developed friendships. Ride shares have opened up more social interaction too.’”

The Ministry also coordinates seminars like the “Tech Table at Lunch” activity. It provides an opportunity for younger members to mentor older adults on using cell phones and tablets and has become a wonderful way to blend people of all ages.

Becoming Truly Self Sustaining

Looking back over the past three years, Audrey explained that the Keiro Grant Program has sparked a change. “It was the Grant that caused us to have the deliberate discussion about the needs of our seniors,” she said.

The Harvesters at WCCC have demonstrated the need for and the importance of all of their senior programs. This passion and direction have been recognized by the WCCC leadership. The WCCC Board of Directors decided to financially support the Harvesters’ ongoing work, without relying upon Keiro Grant Funding. Although the Harvesters programs primarily benefit its older members, the programs simultaneously serve the entire church membership.