WINDSOR TERRACE — COVID-19 upended society and changed how people conduct their daily lives but the pandemic also gave charitable institutions the opportunity to prove they could think outside the box to maintain important services to people in need.
“COVID-19 changed everything. We developed a new strategy,” said Debra Hoffer, director of field operations for the Home Delivery Meals Program at Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens.
As a result, CCBQ still fulfilled its mission when the pandemic hit and is providing hot meals every day to more than 2,200 senior citizens living in Brooklyn and Queens.
“Our drivers never stopped,” Hoffer told The Tablet.
CCBQ started making plans before the virus was widespread in the U.S., according to Stanley Celius, vice president of Progress of Peoples Management.
“As soon as the first case was announced in the U.S. we created a plan,” Celius said.
CCBQ sponsors 23 residential buildings with a total of 2,100 units for senior citizens.
The organization also operates supportive housing for people emerging from New York City’s shelter system.
One of the first actions CCBQ took was to safeguard its residential housing sites. The organization closed all of the common areas in its senior housing buildings and started a process of giving the buildings a thorough cleaning several times a day.
“Most of the seniors did not leave their apartments. They were taking extra precautions,” Celius said. “Some of them are shut-ins. We were concerned. Were they going out for groceries? Senior centers were closed. That is a lifeline for many seniors.”
To reduce the chances of transmission, events in the buildings were canceled.
“We were working from home and it was a challenge coordinating everything but we still managed to do it,” Celius added. “Our staff made regular wellness calls based on the stability of the tenant.”
Adjustments also had to be made to CCBQ’s food delivery program.
“We instituted contact-free delivery. We made sure we had PPE (personal protective equipment) for the delivery drivers,” Hoffer explained. “They practiced social distancing by putting the food package on the doorknob but the drivers would stand six feet away and make sure that the client opens the door and gets the food.”
Just as important as the delivery of the food was the daily contact with the seniors.
“The driver can check up on the senior to make sure they are OK,” she said. “Most of our drivers have been with us eight, nine, 10 years. They really know these clients. They are their eyes and ears.”
Elizabeth Ayers, an 86-year-old Queens resident, gets a food package each day from CCBQ and is grateful for the meals and the friendship she has developed with her driver.
While the hot meals are usually very good, Ayers admitted that she often adds a little something to the dishes.
“The food could use a little seasoning. I doctor it myself. I understand why they make the dishes that way. Some people can’t have salt,” she told The Tablet.
Ayers talked fondly of her days as a parishioner at St. Robert Bellarmine in Bayside, a place she thought of as a second home: “It wasn’t just a church to me.”
The meals that she and thousands of other seniors receive usually consist of a protein dish, a vegetable side dish, whole wheat bread, milk, juice, and fruit — menus approved by the New York City Department for the Aging.
The food package is two-sided. “One side is the refrigerated section. The other side is the heated food section. We offer one hot meal plus a cold pack,” Hoffer said.
Kosher meals are also offered.
CCBQ also stepped in to assist seniors outside of their buildings who were waiting for a city-sponsored emergency food program to begin.
“During COVID-19, the city did get a food delivery service up and running but it would sometimes take two or three days for a senior to become fully integrated into the program,” Hoffer said. “To help fill the gap, CCBQ delivered boxes of non-perishable food to seniors on the waiting list.”