Metta Fund spoke with the executive directors of Metta Fund grantees to see how their priorities and programming has shifted in the midst of a global pandemic. Here’s what they shared with Metta Fund.
On any given day at the Dr. George W. Davis Senior Center in the Bayview District, San Francisco, folks can be seen watching the news together, gathering around the pool table, getting fresh air in the spacious backyard, or sharing food with a friend in the dining area. The mood at the center, normally, is upbeat, as old and new friends come together for weekly activities like dominoes or arts and crafts. But COVID-19’s arrival in mid-March upended all activities at the center; residents have been sheltering in place in their rooms and non-residents have not been to the community center for six months.
The Dr. George W. Senior Center “serves as a hub of community services” for elders and persons with disabilities. It is “the go-to place for seniors in the Bayview-Hunters Point community to connect with each other” and has historically offered services such as nutritious lunches, exercise classes, arts and crafts, computer classes, cooking demonstrations, and community events. To celebrate the work they do, the George Davis Center holds an annual gala. This year, however, the Mayor’s Office cancelled the event, usually attended by a couple thousand guests, because of the impending shelter in place order. It was then that Cathy Davis, the Center’s Executive Director, knew they were heading into unchartered territory.
Cathy and her tenacious staff continue to impart “dignity, respect, and honor” to the George Davis community despite several setbacks because of COVID-19. Cathy attributes the organization’s resilience during this time to a versatile support staff, the perseverance of the elders, and a strong showing of local companies with timely donations and gifts.
“As soon as the annual event was cancelled by the Mayor’s Office we switched to “take-out” meals and ensured every one of our residents were ready to shelter in place,” said Cathy, who’s helmed the George Davis Center for about forty years. “We’ve been on it since the very beginning,” she continued, “because we knew two seniors, two friends, who passed away in the Bayview District, Clifton and Tessie — so it got real for us pretty early,” she said.
“They were very active in our community, in our activities,” she said, “they were connected to the center,” so it was an absolute “heartbreak” to learn of their passing.
As in New York City and Los Angeles, San Francisco’s Black population, especially elders, have suffered at the hands of this virus disproportionately, despite being only 6% of the state’s population. This staggering statistic was noticed early on in the spring, as racial injustice and police brutality raged on across the country with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. As subsequent Black Lives Matter protests and activists took to the streets, Cathy said she “knew immediately that African-American lives and seniors were going to be more at risk and I didn’t know how we were going to make it through the first couple of weeks, and the state didn’t have that figured out either!”
So how did Cathy and her team move to protect an already vulnerable population? First, keep the residents in their home and switch shared in-person mealtime to a delivery system. The center is currently serving about 750 meals a day in the Bayview District and Western Addition with the help of about 20 essential workers who’ve worked nonstop since March.
“We make the food and package it up and get those meals out, and we ask that our building residents just come downstairs for pickup,” said Cathy. And since most of the community and building’s 120 residents miss socializing, Cathy noted that her social workers on call are always making phone calls to the residents, “checking up and checking in on them and trying to engage them with activities online.”
The George Davis Center has been providing virtual activities on Facebook live and Zoom, including art classes, exercise classes, Tai Chi, and yoga. On Fridays, elders enjoy a local farmer’s market where they can pick out produce for themselves and cook the meals at their place of residence. And for those elders who are more tech savvy and like connecting with friends and family online, Cathy’s team was able to secure iPads for a number of elders to keep them engaged.
Beyond the nimble reframing of daily activities and moving into action quickly to protect this vulnerable population, Cathy mentioned her gratitude for generous donations from local companies.
“We received a grant to build a pantry for our seniors, an entire church in the Sunset District raised money for us and sent us volunteers,” she noted, as well as a very generous donation and a truck for ongoing projects on and off campus from a local construction company. While serving 120 elders who also live in the George Davis residence facility, these donations will help fortify services in progress for the several thousand community members they work with on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately, since closing its doors out of safety precautions, the Center is no longer open to homeless elders who sought refuge and found community and connection inside.
“We are dealing with homelessness,” lamented Cathy, “the city is still trying to house people, but homeless folks will come through and ask if there are vacancies here.” She said that the Center’s social workers are currently connecting interested parties with local services to find short and long-term solutions to their housing issues.
Looking at the months to come, Cathy said that she believes this community’s Black elders “have been through way worse than this, quite honestly, it’s just one more thing” to add to the long list of survival tactics they’ve employed in their lives after experienced ongoing civil rights issues and racial, social, and economic inequity. To that end, Cathy added, “with their level of fragility, I was just making sure they were safe.”
Stories by Sahara Marina Borja; Photography by Hasain Rasheed