Local Live: Better Center

That first Zoom class would bring a tear to your eye. They were so happy to see each other every time somebody signed on. Everybody just kind of erupted.

– Renee Cunningham

Park power! Renee Cunningham tells us how Germantown’s Center in the Park got stronger during the shutdown, delivering frozen meals to seniors and opening up a whole new world with online classes. (Transcript below)

The Local 00:00
This is Local Live with Steve Fillmore. We’re joined today by Renee Cunningham from Center in the Park in Germantown. How are you today, Renee?

Renee Cunningham 00:08
Great, thank you.

The Local 00:10
How are things at the Center these days?

Renee 00:14
Different, but still very busy in different ways. So, you know, we’re really happy with the services we still been able to provide, even if our building has been closed for our regular classes and programs.

The Local 00:28
Okay. And that was since March 18, you’ve had the doors closed, correct?

Renee 00:32

The Local 00:33
Okay. So the emergency frozen meals that we’ve seen online, I’ve seen that you’ve partnered with a couple local organizations. Could you take me through what that program is?

Renee 00:46
Absolutely. When we were open before the pandemic Center in the Park was a senior center that had daily lunch, and so we would have probably 100 people a day come for lunch. Then when Center in the Park and all the other senior centers had to close and could no longer offer congregate meals, we had to come up with something else that we were going to be able to do to help people who were used to getting that meal every day.

So, along with Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, their caterer, Betty, we’ve been able to do frozen meals. Seven frozen meals per week for anybody, not even just Center in the Park participants, but any older adult that needs some kind of assistance during the pandemic. It started out we had probably 30 people on the list, which we thought was a lot, that we were delivering frozen meals to and this week, it’s 250 people. And next week, the number is a little bit bigger. And next week, we will actually go over 10,000 meals delivered.

The Local 01:53
Wow. How many volunteers at Center in the Park are involved in this?

Renee 01:58
Our staff come in and do the packaging. We have a couple of steady volunteers who have been wonderful and have helped us package the meals up when they come from the caterer. And then another 20 volunteers (about) — a lot of whom we’ve never met before, who were identified through a program called Easter Outreach. And they’ve been a wonderful organization. They’ve become a volunteer clearinghouse for people who have a little bit of extra time that want to do some good during the shutdown.

And so people go on their website, and they find whichever site and whichever delivery time is best for them, and they’ll pick Center in the Park and then they get some information sent to them. Then they come here and they deliver. Each volunteer probably does about 10 deliveries.

The Local 02:48
Oh, wow. So the people who are making the meals are basically your primary group and then you’ve got volunteers who are doing the delivery. Is that how that works?

Renee 02:56
Yeah, so the meals they’re frozen meals. And they look kind of like the frozen dinners you would buy at the supermarket like a Stouffer’s or Smart Ones. We order them every week from Betty the caterer. They’re frozen, they’re delivered, we get the frozen meals, sometimes we get fruit, maybe applesauce, sometimes bread and also milk. And so that gets delivered to us in bulk.

And then we have staff and a couple of volunteers who package up the seven meals per bag and package that up for the volunteers to come to deliver. They pick it up, they have their route already mapped out. And then they go in the community and it’s contact-less delivery. They’ve got masks and gloves. Nobody has touched any food. And they take it right to the door, ring the bell and back away when they got it.

The Local 03:47
That’s great. And I assume that the schedules are pretty flexible for the people to do the delivery. You can come by you can be if you want to work a few hours here a few hours there. You certainly can.

Renee 03:59
Yeah. It can take as little as an hour really. We have folks who are still working full time and they come on their lunch hour, they pick up the meals, and then they deliver and they go back to work.

The Local 04:14
How would somebody get involved as a volunteer? Can they go to your website and simply inquire about how to do that? Or is there another way to get involved?

Renee 04:23
There is the Easter Outreach website, which I’d be happy to send you. For folks who are interested in delivering, not just from the Center in the Park, but even if they live in South Philadelphia, there’s a center down there doing the same and so I can send you that info. And we’ll also have it up on our website. And then click the link and fill it out. And then you’ll get an email that says thank you for volunteering show up at this time, bring a mask and here’s the address.

The Local 04:53
And how about for people who are in need of the deliveries. Is there a way for them to get in touch with you?

Renee 05:01
Yes. So even though we don’t have staff in the building full time anymore, technology’s been wonderful. So we’re calling in and checking voicemail every two hours. Anybody who either themselves is an older adult and needs some meals even if it’s just until the center opens up again or until the stay at home orders are lifted.

If they call our phone number, then within a couple of hours, they’ll get a call back, and we’ll put them on the list. Or if you have a friend or a neighbor that you’re concerned about, and you want to make sure that they’re taken care of or a relative in the area, we can definitely call them and work that out. Get them on the list.

The Local 05:41
Okay, let’s turn to another program that you have there. It’s the food pantry.

Renee 05:47
Yes. Center in the Park is partnered with SHARE, and they’ve been another wonderful partner during the pandemic. We’ve been really fortunate. I know that things are really difficult for everybody during the pandemic, but there have been so many people who just who show up just wanting to help in so many agencies that have been so wonderful, and SHARE is certainly one of them. Not just here, but across the city, of course. So SHARE will deliver food to us about every other week or so for our food pantry, and we also have some other some other outside donations as well.

And so anybody who needs emergency food, and that can come and pick it up. While the other meals are frozen, and you just pop them in the microwave, this is more like produce, ingredients to cook meals and things like that. We can do a couple of bags from our food pantry. And it’s the same process, you’re going to call our phone number, and then somebody will call you back and we’ll schedule a time for a pickup on a Tuesday or Thursday. We probably see I would say at least 30 people a week average.

The Local 06:57
OK. That is something that covers Germantown. Do you go to any other areas beyond the 19144?

Renee 07:09
Oh yeah. It’s been all of Northwest Philadelphia. Olney, Logan, Feltonville, Germantown, East Oak Lane, West Oak Lane, Mount Airy, a little bit of Nicetown.

The Local 07:20
How long has that program been in effect?

Renee 07:24
We’ve actually had the food pantry for many, many years. But certainly, lately, it has gotten much more play than it usually does. There are all kinds of neighbor agencies that are doing the same. So we’re all getting a lot more activity now.

The Local 07:44
The last thing that I’m particularly curious about is I’ve noticed on your Facebook feed many older adult classes, Zoom things going on. And I think the first Zoom was like late April, so you’re still relatively New to the zoom classes. How’s that been going?

Renee 08:03
It is so great. The technology is easy to work out. And it’s easy to navigate once somebody explains to you how to do it. We’re making phone calls every day to older adults who are Center in the Park participants. We’ve made thousands of phone calls at this point, our staff are calling all day, every day, various folks. Some people are called once a month, some people need to be contacted more often than that.

And when we do those calls we also say “Hey, if you’re online, we can send you this link and you can still participate in classes. The first class that we ran was our men’s gathering, which is a group of older men who come to Center in the Park, and they get together and talk about all kinds of things. I’m not sure exactly what because they always stop talking when I walk in the room.

But we were able to set up the Zoom link and contact people who usually frequent the class, and that first class would bring a tear to your eye. They were so happy to see each other every time somebody signed on. Everybody just kind of erupted. Hey, there he is. And it was wonderful. And we had 17 people go to that first class. And we haven’t had 17 people come in person in I don’t even know how long. So it’s been really well subscribed and those guys are doing great. They don’t need any help from us. They don’t need any intervention. We just set it up and back out so they can do their thing.

The Local 09:35
I’ve noticed there’s also some classes for exercise. There’s an exercise class with Bernice for Every Body. I saw that as well.

Renee 09:45
Yep. Miss Bernice is one of our most popular exercise instructors. She came into the Center when we didn’t have anybody else here and we taped her doing her routine and put that online because folks are sitting home, everybody’s experiencing the quarantine. Folks are starting to work out we posted online, we post the links to them also on the website. And then we also print out a flyer that lists all of our zoom classes that we have going on for the week and we send that out with our meals as well.

We have an “Ask a Doc” program coming up on Friday that we’re very excited about. Our Board President Dr. Sanul Corrielus is going to be doing a Q&A about how people are managing during the pandemic and still trying to take care of their health concerns and things like that.

The Local 10:40
Is that the first in that series?

Renee 10:43

The Local 10:44
That’s a great idea. How did that come about?

Renee 10:47
It was just organic. Our program staff continue to meet via Zoom. All of our staff are working full time still. So it’s behind the scenes and from home and looks a little bit different, but all of the work of the Center is still happening. So we’re just finding ways to continue to offer the classes that people are really invested in and things that we think would be helpful. And then just trying to get the word out that this exists and trying to help people through, the first time with the Zoom technology.

It really isn’t difficult. It’s just that folks don’t know how to do it. And if they have the internet access, and they’re able to, then it’s a great way to still be connected. Social distancing doesn’t mean that we have to not be connected to each other. We’re trying very hard to still maintain and reignite those community connections for folks.

The Local 11:40
So you say most people are still working from home (rather than the Center) and not really much going on inside right now.

Renee 11:54
No, our maintenance and janitorial staff are still here. Cleaning and disinfecting every day. We do the meals twice a week. So we’ve got staff in the building for that. We try to alternate and we’ve got tape on the floor to make sure we keep the social distancing so everybody can stay safe. Everybody’s got masks, everybody’s wearing gloves.

And then all of our other programs are happening remotely. Our in-home support program, we are still helping people who are homebound. We’re still providing emergency services for folks. We’re still doing emergency cash assistance when we’re able to. We’re still doing housing counseling. There’s so much housing counseling that’s going on. For the first time homebuyer. The mortgage default and delinquency has been halted right now by the city, which is great, but all of the counseling needs are still there. So those folks are working from home — our energy assistance coordinator as well. And then our program folks are learning to program in new ways. And we’re doing our service provision as best we can.

The Local 12:59
That’s great. It sounds like you’ve got a fairly robust system in place for people who don’t have the internet access. You can just get them on the phone, you can use a calling list, that kind of thing to get in touch with people.

Renee 13:14
Yeah, we were making hundreds of calls every week trying to keep that connection and keep people in touch if they’re not because not everybody has access to the internet and some people who do, it might be unstable, or they just might not be sure how to use it.

The Local 13:30
Okay, do you have any other things that you’d like to announce that are coming up any big plans, any other classes, anything else? Not that you’re not doing enough already…

Renee 13:45
There’s always more right? Like all agencies and all senior centers, a lot of our plans got postponed. So we had a lot of really wonderful big events that were planned that are kind of up in the air now. The most important thing that I want people to know, and to remember is that we’re still here. We’re still doing services, we’re still providing classes and programs. We’re still maintaining that community connection for folks.

And we are going to reopen. It’s just there’s so much uncertainty, but it is going to happen. The classes are going to be in the building again. I think that we are absolutely going to continue with this online component — we’d be crazy not to — we’re reaching people who can’t get out or who don’t feel like coming out. So we’ll still be able to maintain that piece of it and do online programming for folks who want to.

When we come back, it’ll be safely. We’re not going to have one big party on the day after the state reopens and then have everybody come back in and, and put their safety at risk. We’ll bring things back gradually, we’ll make sure that there’s distance and that we’re able to continue to flatten the curve. But we will be back all of the classes are going to come back. Everything is going to be okay.

The Local 15:03
That Zoom component, that online component is pretty amazing….It’s a great thing to have.

Renee 15:26
Yeah, we have a member of our leadership team, our Director of Grant research and Development, who lives remotely. The majority of the work that she does can be done remotely. So we actually had a little Zoom experience. So we were didn’t have as much to figure out — but all of those technology pieces are difficult.

At first when you’re not quite sure, and connections aren’t stable. For the first two weeks I think we were all trying to figure things out but everybody’s got it down pat now. We have folks calling in and people are trying it. Once you’re successful and you’re able to get into the Zoom class and you’re successful, then you feel good about yourself. And that’s something we all need right now.

The Local 16:06
Yes. Well, it’s a great thought to end on there. And thank you, Renee, for making time for us. I appreciate it.

Renee 16:12
Thank you very much.

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