It was an especially cold December afternoon, as I walked through San Francisco’s Financial District looking for 731 Sansome St. Peering at me over my scarf, the woman behind the front desk came quickly to the door, urging me inside and out of the cold. The office was very much alive, filled with the daily bustle one would expect to find in a large firm or corporate setting, not at a nonprofit organization that specializes in senior care. Shortly after my arrival, I was greeted by Fund Development Director Josephine Ma, who was smiling from ear to ear as she took my hand in her own. We moved to a small conference room located in the back of the building, where I gladly accepted a hot cup of tea. Readying my notebook, Ma spoke first, “I love what I do,” she said. “It is very rewarding.
In 1966, Self Help for the Elderly — SHE — opened on Old Chinatown Lane in San Francisco, with only three tables and a mission to serve the poverty-stricken of their diverse community. Now on the cusp of their 50th year anniversary, SHE now serves over 35,000 low-income seniors a year in the Bay Area. With over nine programs, structured to assist common yet specific needs, thousands of seniors can now successfully navigate this late chapter in their lives with the confidence that comes from being self-sufficient. Programs such as Social Services, Caregiving and Housekeeping, Home Health Care and Hospice, Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy, as well Adult Day Services, not only support seniors, but offer comfort and security to the many family members unable to dedicate their own time to assisting their aging loved ones.
Ma was most excited to discuss the nutrition plans and meals SHE offers daily. Their newest program, called Choosing Healthy Appetizing Meal Plan Solution for Seniors — CHAMPSS — allows seniors the experience of dining in a restaurant at a price they can afford. In Partnership with S&E Café on 19th Avenue, and funded by the Department of Aging and Adult Services, attendees need only offer a donation of $3.50 for a satisfying, dietitian-approved, meal of their choice. Collectively, SHE offers over a thousand meals a day, including deliveries to the homebound. With ten senior centers located throughout the Bay Area, this year alone SHE provided more than 200,000 onsite meals, with an additional 100,000 meals delivered to seniors and persons with disabilities.
These same senior centers offer a wide range of both onsite and offsite activities, structured around the happiness and health of those they serve.
One of the most beneficial programs SHE offers is employment training and placement. Many low-income seniors are working well past the age of retirement, in order to support themselves and others under their care. And those seniors who are undocumented or do not speak English are often forced to take significantly lesser paying jobs with no security or benefits. SHE not only offers classes to teach basic English, but also trains and secures employment for low-income seniors, while simultaneously working towards obtaining health insurance, social security, and retirement. There is also the San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship Initiative, which helps with the meticulous process of becoming a citizen; applicants receive free legal care and language assistance.
SHE has several different housing programs. Lady Shaw, celebrating its 25th anniversary, is located on Mason Street in San Francisco. The 17-unit complex exists thanks to a generous donor out of Hong Kong, who named the beautiful development after his wife. Lady Shaw offers cooking, calligraphy, singing, and tai chi classes, as well as 24-hour aid and a nutrition-based meal plan. Autumn Glow is a residential care facility specifically for elderly Alzheimer patients; with 15 beds, 24-hour aid, and healthy meals. Autumn Glow provides medical and daily assistance to patients affected by Alzheimer's. However, staff members also encourage self-sufficiency by scheduling exercise and tea times that help promote a comforting and secure environment.
While the welfare of seniors is the primary focus of SHE, the betterment of our community is their ultimate goal — which is why SHE has teamed up with Comcast to create tech grants for children from low-income families in the Chinatown District of San Francisco. The after-school program offers a computer-based curriculum where children can learn a wide array of technical skills. After a year’s participation and successful completion of the program, Comcast promises to give each child their own laptop.
SHE is an invaluable organization that goes beyond the call of charity. It is important to note, the many times during my interview Ma used the word “entertain” rather than “serve,” a testament to the respect these volunteers and employees have for the thousands of low-income seniors they see daily. Newspapers are too often filled with horror stories of senior abuse and neglect. It is humbling to see a group of dedicated individuals devoting so much of their time to the well being of those less fortunate. And it is because of the charity and commitment SHE promotes, that they have been able to turn to generous donations in a time when government funding is in such a fragile state. The Bay Area is lucky to be the home of such an outstanding community organization, and while SHE is a nonprofit organization with 501(C)(3) tax-exemption status, it still relies heavily upon the altruistic practice of philanthropy. More information about SHE, as well as ways to donate and volunteer, can be found on the website link at www.selfhelpelderly.org.