Vashon Senior Center receives county grant

The four-year grant from King County will help implement a new “Virtual Villages” program.

Last week, the Vashon Senior Center was awarded a four-year grant from King County for a total of $416,000, made possible by the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy, to implement a new neighborhood-based program on Vashon that will better support the island’s communities of seniors.

Now the senior center is soliciting applications for a new grant-funded position for getting the program off the ground, helping to create up to three “Virtual Villages,” or assemblies of neighbors, across the island. Such villages are an emerging model of assistance for independent seniors, organized by volunteers who can help provide them with the services they need: Anything from arranging transportation — already a significant barrier to many on Vashon, and now made all the more so with safety to consider around COVID-19 — to creating opportunities for socializing.

The Vashon Senior Center is one of only eight organizations serving seniors in King County to receive such an award this biennium.

“Virtual” is a bit of a misnomer — that refers to the program’s reach, serving seniors outside of the brick-and-mortar building on Bank Road, much like the center’s Neighbor to Neighbor and Bluebird Medical Transportation programs do currently. The center hopes that establishing a neighborly cadre of volunteers will help seniors navigate the many issues they face growing older, especially in a remote setting such as Vashon. Knowing who is in your neighborhood to call on can make a huge difference, especially when that help is part of a formal program and not just dependent on the good graces of a kindly neighbor, Executive Director Catherine Swearingen said.

“The whole premise is, ‘let’s grow old together.’ Nobody has to grow old alone,” she said. “So what are the barriers to staying active and independent when you get older? It’s hard to do it by yourself.”

The villages will be identified through surveys and a door-to-door community assessment — conducted as safely as possible given the ongoing pandemic — to spread the word and hear from neighborhoods about what would make their village great. Islander Keith Prior, acting as the program’s first official volunteer, intends to employ a community assessment process he designed based on earlier work to get the ball rolling, helping, he said, to enrich the lives of seniors and sustain them both socially and emotionally. The assessment is not just for collecting ideas, he said, but the names of people who are motivated to make things happen and are willing to have conversations about what they want for their community.

“I think this is going to be great,” he said. “These Virtual Villages have the potential of making some lives much more comfortable, much more secure and even safer. That’s my dream, I guess.”

The center has long sought to address chronic issues facing seniors, their families and caregivers on the island, and to provide further assistance in the home meant to help seniors live independently for as long as possible, supporting them with readily accessible and available resources. Swearingen said the county’s award will provide the center the structure it needs to facilitate its ongoing programs and expand opportunities for connection among seniors who might otherwise have remained isolated or disengaged.

Having such a system as this in place will make it easier for seniors to reach out and ask for help with a myriad of needs, Swearingen noted.

“It’s hard for people to ask for help when they feel like they’re imposing on someone,” she said. “If a neighbor could come over, it’s pretty easy for them to get there, and it’s a great way to meet your neighbors if you didn’t already know them.”

The new program manager position, at 30 hours a week, will help build the program from scratch on the island and lead the start-up effort, being responsible for outreach and recruiting volunteers and later serving as a conduit between the new villages and the center. The right candidate for the job will have a challenging but rewarding task ahead of them, Swearingen said, and help the center fulfill its mission of developing a network and personal and community resilience among seniors on the island. The center will provide financial backing for ongoing operational costs such as vetting volunteers, taking on liability insurance, technology, accounting and other expenses that will make the difference between a loosely formed group with good intentions and an organized, responsive and well-established village, Swearingen said.

“I’m envisioning that seniors don’t just live in neighborhood isolation, that if there’s going to be sort of joint leadership, counsel, whatever they want to call it, that will meet regularly to talk about things that are working and not working, challenges, how they can share ideas and information resources,” she said. “It has so much potential.”

Swearingen added that she was grateful the tax levy money was being invested into the island.

“I’m mindful of the challenges that groups and businesses have right now,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for us to look for new ways to serve seniors and we’re just very excited about this year… I think seniors just received a huge gift.”

Senior center volunteers and staff members, many of whom shop for, cook and deliver meals to homebound seniors, are taking an organized sabbatical this week and returning in full force Monday, Aug. 17. Swearingen said that since the center closed in early March, the center has delivered more than 3,000 meals. For some perspective on how fast the center has ramped up its meals program, last July, the center served 590 meals on-site four days a week. This July, delivering meals regardless of center membership three days a week, the center served 939 meals. Of those, 283 were provided to households at no cost.

“That’s probably our biggest challenge right now,” Swearingen said, “is making sure that we have the funding to keep that program going because clearly people want it and need it.”

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