Tel Hi Neighborhood Center

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.

One afternoon this past March, as COVID-19 was spreading quickly through the country, Nestor Fernandez noticed something eerie while overseeing the daily distribution of food outside of San Francisco Food Bank: absolute silence. 

“At one point,” said Nestor, Executive Director of Tel Hi Neighborhood Center, “we were feeding 5,000 people per day, and I’d walk through these lines, long lines as if people were waiting for a concert, and just, you could hear a pin drop – all these lines were eerily quiet.” The mood, he shared, was one of uncertainty and fear. Like other organizations in San Francisco whose primary demographic is aging and therefore quite vulnerable, tensions have remained high as COVID-19 battered nursing homes and largely Black and Latinx populations.  

Tel Hi’s mission is to enhance the lives of the people in their community, and up until March, Nestor was overseeing a variety of in-person programming that supported seniors in remaining vital and independent. Tai chi, yoga classes, communal lunches, and computer classes were all part of the weekly schedule, but once COVID-19 hit, Nestor and his team had to make drastic changes; and community members had to rise to the challenge, too.  

Nestor had to figure out how Tel Hi was going to host and facilitate the elders remotely, a true challenge for a tight-knit community that values its one-on-one time, daily lunches, and activities like Tai Chi. 

Normally, Tel Hi provides daily meals for 70-90 participants. When COVID-19 hit, food security for community members became a high priority; as the elders rely on Tel Hi for nutritious lunches. Nestor relayed that lunch is the only meal the elders receive all day and their only form of social interaction, so converting the meals into a “to go” format was heartbreaking for recipients.

The change in routine was initially met with resistance. “They’re just as social as any of us,” said Nestor, remembering how the elders would react after lunch was passed out. “They would keep hanging out and I had to kick them out of the building,” said Nestor with a laugh. “And then they would go and congregate in the garden, and I’d have to come over and make them stay six feet apart!” Because safety was always a high priority, the elders understood why Nestor had to “shoo” them out of gathering areas, but that didn’t make social isolation any easier.

“They really love being around each other,” said Nestor. “That’s the part that became extremely difficult.”

Nestor shared that for the first month (March-April) Tel Hi was creating meals “to go” but soon after decided to transition to a weekly “pre-pack” to be able to give the elders enough food to last them through the week, which in turn curbed their exposure to COVID-19 by allowing them to shelter in place without having to head outside to secure meals. After a few weeks, Nestor decided to combine all programs that Tel Hi facilitates into one big food pantry in San Francisco.

“The first couple of weeks we were serving 1,000 people, passing out about 1,000 plates at San Francisco Middle School,” said Nestor, but that number soon rose to 5,000 plates as demand grew and as they combined services to best fit the needs of the community. “The problem,” said Nestor, was that the elders “couldn’t stand in a line that long because some of them didn’t feel safe.” So with this feedback, Nestor and his team transitioned yet again.

“We knew we needed a workaround,” said Nestor. So the delivery program was put into place. An “all hands on deck” approach allowed his staff to be directly involved with the delivery program.

Sheltering in place, a state mandate, also meant that elders would now be participating in activities and social interactions virtually, which has proved challenging for them. Teaching Tel Hi elders how to use their smartphones for survival — navigating Google maps, making a doctor’s appointment, using car service apps, or joining a virtual class on Zoom — has been an ongoing challenge. 

With a grant from Metta Fund, Tel Hi developed a program to help elders utilize technology to navigate the world with greater ease. Since COVID-19 hit, they’ve expanded this program to include virtual and livestream exercise classes as well as a weekly wellness check. 

“We know that isolation can cause depression, and for that reason we conduct about 450 wellness checks a week,” shared Nestor. “Sometimes they call us just to say hello and chat,” he laughed, but stated that the elders have appreciated the extra outreach. 

One of the elders came to appreciate virtual services so much that when his WIFI went out, he called Tel Hi to complain. After the office coordinator responded that they were working on it, the elder became impatient and ended up writing a letter to the mayor of San Francisco, voicing his complaints. Seeing how much elders were relying on their virtual community, Nestor took inventory of their now-empty computer lab and decided to give the elders in the computer literacy course a computer. 

“We have iMacs in our computer labs but because we couldn’t have the elders come in, and we realized the labs were going to be empty for a while,” said Nestor. “The iMacs are about three years old,” he continued, “but they weren’t doing us any good sitting in the lab.” 

Gestures of good faith, community outreach, and finding ways to keep in touch with their community members has guided Tel Hi throughout this pandemic, and wellness checks, virtual exercise classes, and food delivery have kept them busy and close to one another. 

As Nestor recalls, seeing the huge lines at the food pantry was heartbreaking and showed him just how difficult the situation was, but then, on the flip side, he noted that he was bolstered by having an “army of volunteers” who came out to help that brought the community together.

“It was really nice to see that,” said Nestor, “you just saw a community of people starting to care for each other.”

Stories by Sahara Marina Borja; Photography by Hasain Rasheed