By Lola Rain
When the pandemic hit, Gina Rodriguez and her Community Services team at Sequoia Living acted quickly. She knew the impact of social isolation on her participants would be detrimental to their health. She also knew the students they are responsible for tutoring would suffer.
“We needed to regroup and not wait,” explained Rodriguez. “Schools stopped in March. We started training in April.” Rodriguez oversees a program supported by AARP Foundation called Experience Corps Bay Area where local volunteers over 50 years old teach literacy in person to first through third graders. Many of the children they tutor are low income and English is their second language, said Rodriguez. Experience Corps Bay Area serves school districts in San Francisco, San Rafael, and Novato, and they are working to expand in San Mateo County.
Principals are reaching out asking for help, explained Rodriguez. “Teachers look to us for support,” she said. “They need us desperately because students are behind.” According to a report published by Annie E. Casey Foundation, children who do not learn to read by third grade have a lower likelihood of graduating 12th grade.
In March 2020, Rodriguez met with her Experience Corps Bay Area Program Manager, Sandra Strang. “We need to figure this out, let’s train them in different virtual platforms,” Rodriguez told Strang. The Experience Corps Bay Area team started on Zoom to get the volunteers comfortable with video conferencing. Then they rolled out their Experience Corps structured tutoring program virtually.
This pivot had an upside. Suddenly, they had a surge of volunteers. In a matter of months, the program grew from 90 volunteers to over 125. “Anyone can volunteer if they have access to internet with a tablet, desktop, or laptop,” explained Rodriguez. “This pandemic opened up a whole new avenue to tutor from the comfort of home. It broadened the geographic location of volunteers, no more limitations on transportation.”
“Older adults need this now more than ever,” said AARP’s Ellie Webb who oversees Experience Corps affiliates in California. She says that Rodriguez’ team “have done a fabulous job training their volunteers.” Sequoia Living is one of 18 affiliates across the US.
Volunteer Todd Wiedenmayer shifted from in-person to virtual tutoring. “It feels good to be providing a service that helps others,” said Wiedenmayer, who has been volunteering with Sequoia Living since 2013. “It gives me more meaning and purpose in life.” He said the best part of virtual volunteering is not having to drive, but online communication comes with its own challenges like technical difficulties. The Experience Corps Bay Area program is funded by donors through Sequoia Living’s foundation, Senior Services for Northern California, and the schools pay a fee to participate. Due to COVID, the fees were reduced.
To find out more about this volunteer program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 415-464-1767.
San Francisco Senior Center Goes Virtual, Affordable Housing Residents Adapt
Rodriguez and her team are trailblazing this new world of COVID. At five affordable housing communities in the Bay Area, they launched a pilot program to lend tablets to residents. There are 10 tablets with internet access that can be checked out all day. The tablets enable residents to keep in touch with their friends and family and participate in virtual activities.
At the two senior centers Sequoia Living operates in San Francisco, they shifted to digital programming. Prior to the pandemic, “some classes only had 10 people, now there are 35 people virtually,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez and San Francisco Senior Center staff are currently working on a plan to grow engagement. Since only about a quarter of in-person attendees are participating virtually, Rodriguez knows they have a long way to go. “We are not turning back, even when the vaccine comes. We will offer a hybrid of programming, especially for seniors who can’t leave their homes.” Check out a list of the San Francisco Senior Center’s online classes here.