Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By Sandra Coopersmith
Special to the Observer 

AllTogether LA: a Nonprofit Serving Seniors, Saving Lives, Building Community

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." – Dr. Seuss

 

Eve, a senior, and Jessie, volunteer, exchanging air hugs

The good doctor could have describing Lorena Camarena, President and Executive Director of AllTogether LA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit helping seniors stay home and stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic by facilitating grocery and medication deliveries. "Seniors can call our hotline, (323) 310-0411, leave a message, and we will connect them to background-checked neighbors whom we match by zip code within 24 hours," she said. The website is http://www.AllTogether.LA.

The nonprofit started in Santa Monica in March and has expanded to serve seniors in Mar Vista, Venice, Marina del Rey, Culver City and Brentwood and -- breaking news – additional locations throughout Los Angeles County are imminent.  

"We have been working with LA Helping Hands, a community organization, and are now merging with them," Camarena said. "In the next handful of days we will expand as we are taking on their volunteers and seniors for all of Los Angeles County. Since LA Helping Hands is overwhelmed with the call volume, they are joining our team. We are able to do this because of our advanced technology and infrastructure. Our phone number remains the same, their calls will be forwarded to our hotline, and we will now be available anywhere in Los Angeles County!"

Emphasizing that "our #1 priority is the safety of our volunteers and seniors," she added that "all of our background-checked volunteers are instructed to make contactless deliveries and are provided with masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. We pair each volunteer with one or two seniors in their zip code, and the idea is that the volunteer provides ongoing support to their elderly neighbors. Through this work during COVID-19, we hope to facilitate long-lasting relationships between them and build a greater sense of community as well as keep our seniors safe."

Additionally, they help seniors sign up for local nonprofit services that are specifically geared toward low-income seniors experiencing food insecurity (e.g., Meals on Wheels, The Salvation Army, etc.). In the meantime, while helping them get signed up AllTogether LA also covers the seniors' immediate food needs. Donations, which can be made at AllTogether.LA/donate, are gratefully accepted and used to satisfy those needs and to provide volunteers with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

So how did it all begin?

"Two months ago I started Santa Monica Community Helpers after seeing my elderly neighbors struggling to get the groceries they needed, many of them above the age of 80 and living alone without any family nearby," Camarena said. "They were battling long lines at grocery stores only to come back empty-handed, and they were becoming increasingly fearful of leaving their homes, rightfully so, and exposing themselves to a potentially fatal virus."

She "was able to assemble an incredible group of professionals across the entertainment, health, legal, social services, and tech sectors who came together because we all wanted to help our vulnerable neighbors. This group of organizers is the lifeblood of AllTogether LA, and this would not be possible without each of them."

In addition to Camarena, who leads marketing and partnerships, the organizers are "Anthony Accomazzo (Director, Engineering). He built the hotline that allows seniors to call in, and he built the dispatch system that allows us to match seniors with volunteers in their same zip code. Ben Ryzak (Director, Operations) has been critical in getting us established as a nonprofit and instituting background checks. Eric Goldman (Director, Technology and Strategy) has been key in helping us expand beyond Santa Monica.  Kayla Higginbotham (Director, Senior Resources) has been indispensable in helping us connect low-income seniors with food resources. Mitch Olivieri (Director, Community Health and Volunteering) has been vital in connecting volunteers with seniors."

After a massive grassroots effort to mobilize a volunteer task force, the group grew to 300+ volunteers and expanded its efforts beyond Santa Monica into AllTogether LA, servicing local communities across Santa Monica, Venice, Mar Vista, Marina del Rey, Brentwood, and Culver City, currently in the process of expanding further to include LA Helping Hands.

Saving seniors is what it's all about, and that clearly came through in the Directors' comments.

For Higginbotham, "the thing that has been most inspiring to me has been the eagerness of our volunteers to help their neighbors. The news during the beginning of this pandemic was quick to characterize young people as not taking the pandemic seriously or caring about the health of those most vulnerable. I have seen the exact opposite over the last couple months! It's been such an important reminder to me about how much good there is in the world and how much people are willing to do to help out complete strangers in times like this."

Olivieri feels that "by connecting multiple generations of neighbors together, we are creating a stronger and better community. This work is important because there are more seniors in need living around us than we realize. A lot of them needed help before this pandemic started and will need help after it is over. My seniors know they can call me anytime if they need anything or if they just want to chat. I wanted to get involved with helping seniors and the immunocompromised because they are the highest risk population. If we can allow them to stay inside and avoid contracting COVID-19 we could save their life."

"AllTogether LA's top priority is the health and safety of our senior clients and volunteers," Ryzak said. "We provide all volunteers with masks, gloves and hand sanitizer and educate them on safety guidelines consistent with CDC recommendations. After speaking with seniors in our community and recognizing the vulnerability of that population, we have instituted a background check process for all volunteers to give our clients peace of mind." He encourages all residents interested in volunteering or donating to visit the website. 

For Accomazzo, "it's been great to see how quickly and readily so many young folks have jumped to the task of helping out their neighbors! In the face of a pandemic that no one seems to really have a handle on, pitching in a little bit each week makes me feel a little less useless. Plus, I was paired with a neighbor who lives just three houses down from me. We live in such close proximity, but would probably never have met or connected without this crisis or this effort. That sense of hyper-localism is really effective for making this effort feel rewarding for all."

"AllTogether LA has been such a wonderful reminder of the strength and resilience in our community, said Goldman. "It's easy to turn inwards during times of change and become selfish. AllTogether LA reminds us that we are all in this together, that when we connect with each other we can turn a shared tragedy into an opportunity to grow and heal one neighbor at a time."

And for those neighbors, AllTogether LA has been an incredible boon.

"This has been wonderful – heaven sent," said Eve, 90 years old.

the 6 organizers: Lorena Camarena, Anthony Accomazzo, Kayla Higginbotham in top row; Ben Ryzak, Mitch Olivieri, Eric Goldman in bottom row

"My name is Jaryl and I am a 75-year-old resident of Santa Monica. Because I am at high risk for the COVID-19 virus I have been using this volunteer service to go to the drugstore and pick up my meds. Lorena and Astrid are cheerful and friendly and always keep me up to date. I feel so fortunate to have these volunteers in my community! I never envisioned it becoming unsafe to go to the pharmacy!"

"You're a blessing to me," said 84-year-old Elani. "You're like saving my life. I have no one else. It's like an angel from heaven delivered those groceries to me."

Since this story started with a quote from one doctor (Theodor Seuss Geisel. who received an honorary Ph.D. from his alma mater, Dartmouth), it seems only appropriate to end with one from another, Dr. Albert Schweitzer: "The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others."     

And that pretty much exemplifies AllTogether LA.

 

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