Low-income senior residents of Long Beach have faced food insecurity, isolation and a lack of connection during the coronavirus pandemic, but local nonprofit Heart of Ida is working to reduce these problems.
The nonprofit has distributed 111 tablets and established 50 internet hotspots in 2020 thanks to a digital inclusion grant from the city of Long Beach, according to Dina Berg, founder and executive director, who is also a lecturer at Long Beach State in the Department of Public Administration.
With the help of nursing students, Heart of Ida is also making sure that those receiving tablets can navigate them.
“They’re calling everyone and they’re trying to talk them through it and if not they can do a home visit,” Berg said. “So we’re really trying to get our people connected.”
Heart of Ida had to figure out how to make sure senior citizens stayed informed during the coronavirus pandemic to tell them about current programs and opportunities.
Berg came up with the Friendly Caller Program, which started out leaving messages for a few dozen people weekly to keep them informed. These phone calls now reach over 750 people biweekly, and the volunteer that makes these calls provide familiarity and open communication to the seniors.
Food was the most important thing that Heart of Ida’s low-income seniors needed in 2020, according to Berg.
Heart of Ida received a grant to distribute $30,000 in grocery store gift cards to the lowest income older adults in Long Beach, Berg said.
“That was really eye-opening to see how much people are surviving on, and it was just so helpful for them to get this $150 gift cards,” Berg said, adding on that they would help with shopping for those that could not get out.
According to Berg, 146 Grocery store gift cards and 150 food boxes were delivered to low-income seniors in 2020.
But something that was really appreciated by people was the fresh produce boxes Heart of Ida put out in February and March, Berg said.
She shared a story about one senior woman had not been able to go out during this time, utilizing Meals on Wheels services as well as getting signed up for Heart of Ida’s Friendly Caller Program. From that, Heart of Ida was able to offer their dog walker program to help keep pets active on behalf of those who can’t.
“So then, we gave her a thing of fresh produce and she called and she was like crying [and said], ‘I haven’t had a fresh vegetable in a year,'” Berg said.
Heart of Ida was established in Long Beach in 2008 and was founded by Berg and her sister Keri Reich in honor of their grandmother Alice Ida Reich, who was a community activist.
Growing up, Berg recalled her and Reich accompanying their grandma with whatever she was doing in the community. One of their favorite things to do, Berg said, was to go to nursing homes during the holidays.
There, they would hand out personal hygiene gift bags and spend time with the elderly residents, who welcomed the girls, happy to see children.
“I always sat down with someone and heard their life story and I loved hearing about history, this is amazing,” Berg said. “I just loved it and so every year, this is what we did with my grandma. And so, she passed away in 1991 and you know, we kind of stopped doing that.”
When Reich moved back from Montana, the sisters decided they wanted to start doing that again, and Heart of Ida was born. They have since continued that work through Operation Holiday Hearts, which continues to give to seniors during the holidays.
One of the current programs Heart of Ida is working on is a rental assistance program, which would provide $1,000 to landlords for the seniors struggling to afford rent.
The program is for low-income seniors age 65 or older living in Long Beach that do not live in subsidized housing, according to Berg.
And during all of this, Heart of Ida has also created segments on public access television to highlight the community and connect with seniors on another medium. Berg also shared their program Tai Chi to Me, where Heart of Ida came to the homes of seniors, practicing Tai Chi while socially-distanced, and convenient for those who couldn’t leave their homes.
Now, as seniors receive the vaccine for COVID-19, as businesses continue to reopen and the opportunity to reconnect in-person grows, Berg said that she is seeing morale improve.
“It’s like all of the sudden things are changing, you could see peoples attitudes are changing,” Berg said, adding how her 76-year-old mother received her second dose of the vaccination and that she could see the difference. “We’re still being safe, but there’s some hope.”
Visit the Heart of Ida’s website for more information to get involved, donate or support the nonprofit.