Peer Wonders: COVID-19 Community Heroes (Part 2 of 3)
In the fight against the health impacts of social isolation on our most vulnerable Americans, heroes take many shapes. In this three-part blog series, Wider Circle recognizes our everyday change-makers who are stepping up, in ways big and small, to support their neighbors in need of social connection and essential supplies during this health crisis.
Wider Circle Employee Builds Community Network from the Ground Up to Reduce Food Insecurities for Neighbors in Need
Grit and determination are in Robin Anderson-Wood’s DNA. When the 15-year international community development veteran, triathlete and former college swimmer received a call from a Wider Circle recruiter in the fall of 2019, she was recovering from a health scare that had her in and out of San Francisco hospitals for two years. The recruiter explained that as a Lead Facilitator for Wider Circle’s Connect for Life® program, Anderson-Wood would be responsible for growing the organization’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter across 24 cities, galvanizing volunteers and organizing events to facilitate social connectedness and improve health among older adults.
“My family thought I was crazy, they wanted me to ease back into the workforce with a part-time, low activity job,” Anderson-Wood recounted. But the more she learned about the position and the mission behind Wider Circle, Anderson-Wood was convinced that this was exactly the next challenge she needed to take on. “Social isolation among older adults is a major stressor, with significant health impacts if left unaddressed. Wider Circle helps pull seniors out of isolation and offers a social support structure they can count on, giving them a sense of purpose and helping to counter feelings of loneliness which ultimately leads to better health. How could I sit idle and not jump in to help?”
“Whenever someone tells me something is impossible, my mission in life is to prove them wrong.”
Within four months, Anderson-Wood built up her task force of core volunteers — aka Member Ambassadors — across the San Francisco Peninsula, and together they increased attendance to Wider Circle English and Spanish membership events by 500% month over month. “I have an 85-year old ambassador who was practically running the show, stepping up every week to help our community stay strong and connected. Ages 60 to 90+, my ambassadors are the key to encouraging their neighbors to engage and come out to have some fun.” The monthly events covered a variety of popular topics from heart health to health plan benefits, always with a strong social component.
Fast forward to March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic puts a halt to Wider Circle events and home health visits. The health crisis has not only forced neighbors back into social isolation, but has placed even greater challenges on access to food and supplies for our most vulnerable Americans. Anderson-Wood and fellow facilitators nationwide wasted no time rapidly transitioning their traditional in-person programming to virtual support groups and health check calls.
“When the coronavirus hit, my team became frontline workers for those in need, maybe without the Hazmat suits but certainly with our boots planted firmly on the ground out in the community.”
Anderson-Wood created buddy phone trees with her ambassadors to make sure every member received regular check-ins from a friendly, familiar voice. She also leveraged her phone tree to track which members were in need of critical supplies and medication. By June, Anderson-Wood had raised over $10,000 in individual and corporate donations to extend Wider Circle’s own funding so that she could fulfill the growing need for food and supplies deliveries. Additionally, she forged partnerships with food suppliers like Second Harvest and Meals on Wheels to ensure especially vulnerable members received complete meal deliveries for as long as they needed.
“Like many organizations in our position who have the community network in place but are not food suppliers, we had to pivot our model and go boots on the ground, creating that infrastructure practically overnight since all the food pantries and community centers had to shut down,” Anderson-Wood said. To help meet demand, she also started her own Facebook and Instagram campaigns to recruit outside volunteers and donations. “We started small, about 10 meals a week, but thanks to the support of our community partnerships and my volunteers, we are up to 300 meals a week and growing.”
“So many of our seniors are homebound, feeling scared and can’t afford food. Their health is compromised so we need to follow through and help them no matter what it takes. I’m so grateful for all of my partners who have stepped up to help me connect the dots and close the gaps.”
As with any inspiring COVID-19 story, Anderson-Wood’s would not be complete without toilet paper. She runs a weekly “Toilet Paper, Maks, Gloves and Sanitizer Distribution Event” out of her garage each month, during which nearby members can stop by to pick up supplies and exchange virtual hugs, as well as offer to make deliveries to homebound friends. “These events have come to mean more to my members than just the physical items they are picking up; they are also about reminding them they aren’t’ alone, that there’s someone out there who cares for them and wants to help.”
Recently, Anderson-Wood received a call from Wider Circle COO Darin Buxbaum thanking her for saying yes to that job offer back in December. Reflecting on the conversation, Buxbaum explained: “Robin and her fellow facilitators are the lifeblood of our community care model. I am blown away by how gracefully and compassionately she has carried our mission forward in the Bay Area, all while addressing the increased need for social support and essential supplies brought on by this public health crisis.”
But if you ask Anderson-Wood, she considers herself the lucky one. “I am such a small part of this story. I’m honored to be a part of the Wider Circle family and feel lucky to get to do this important work. We have accomplished so much together, but there is still much left to do.”