Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to newstips@seattletimes.com with the subject “Stepping Up.”

When Seattle’s Eritrean Association Community Center shuttered in accordance with the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Jay Inslee, Isaac Araya was desperate, wondering what in the world to do about more than 100 seniors who usually visit the center to eat lunch and see friends.

First, Araya and his board told his workers to stay home. But they didn’t want to leave the seniors hungry and isolated, the center’s longtime president said. Next, the workers tried to make food deliveries. But navigating to all the homes took hours and the hot lunches went cold. “They had no experience driving,” Araya said.

Then a lightbulb blinked on. Numerous Eritrean community members drive for ride-hail companies, and they had seen their business mostly disappear.

“We came up with the idea to use Uber drivers” who speak Tigrinya and Amharic, Araya recalled. “They know the streets. They know the city.”

A month later, workers and volunteers from the center off Rainier Avenue are delivering lentils, steamed vegetables and injera three days each week to seniors, checking on their health and letting them know their community cares.

Across the Seattle area, other organizations that typically serve seniors also are adapting their in-person models to a new reality. Initially stunned by coronavirus closures, hundreds of helpers have built food-delivery programs out of thin air.

There was no playbook for the pandemic, so each program has been uniquely constructed through trial and error. Some groups are using Facebook to recruit volunteers, while others have enlisted King County Metro Access shuttles that otherwise would be sitting idle.

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Donnie Bland, chef at Shoreline-Lake Forest Park Senior Center, includes dessert with every lunch he cooks. Sound Generations, which manages the Shoreline program and other congregate meal sites, is delivering 1,800 hot meals weekly. Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) had to halt lunches at multiple sites, but its South Seattle headquarters is still cranking out 1,200 hot meals each week.

Oleg Pynda, executive director at the Ukrainian Community Center in Skyway, packs potato and vegetable lunches into his personal van. The seniors he serves are scared. “Somebody who’s not Ukrainian, they’re not going to open the door,” Pynda said.

It’s not just hot lunches. In the Chinatown International District recently, volunteers brought together by Interim Community Development Association knocked on doors in an apartment building for seniors, to distribute vitamins and bags of rice.

Yu Qiong Liu waves thanks to Henry Liu, community engagement and education manager at InterIm Community Development Association, after he delivered groceries to her and 12 seniors living in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Yu Qiong Liu waves thanks to Henry Liu, community engagement and education manager at InterIm Community Development Association, after he delivered groceries to her and 12 seniors living in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

When the virus hit, “I was like, ‘I gotta do something,'” said Interim community-engagement manager Henry Liu. “I went to Uwajimaya, bought groceries and started making deliveries.”

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He was thinking about his grandmother, Zhu Hua Huang, who lives in the building the volunteers visited April 6. She was beaming when she opened her door and saw Liu, but she kept her distance. “There are seniors who are getting lonely, stuck at home,” the 81-year-old said.

Thirty five of the 58 sites in the area that usually serve meals to seniors have launched delivery systems, according to Aging and Disability Services (ADS) for Seattle and King County. Some food banks, community organizations, mutual-aid groups and chefs have, too.

Every Thursday, community and senior center leaders from across King County join a call to share tips. While the pandemic has turned their work upside down, “Food is a basic necessity,” said G. De Castro, who runs the ACRS program. “We have to meet that need.”

When centers close, hearts open

When the coronavirus swept into the Seattle area, the community meal sites immediately became danger zones, tailor-made to pass the deadly illness. The programs supported by ADS serve the precise population most vulnerable to the coronavirus: older adults and people with underlying health conditions, director Cathy Knight said at a tele-town hall hosted this month by AARP.

Shutting them down was a blow. During normal times, the sites are cherished options for seniors with fixed incomes and provide scarce opportunities to get together, said Anna Kitchin, who coordinates a nutrition program for Washington State University’s King County extension.

Clients can ride to the community and senior centers with the Access shuttles that Metro uses to transport people with disabilities, or with the Hyde shuttles that Sound Generations uses to transport seniors. Meals are $4 to $6, as a suggested donation. The sites served more than 12,500 seniors last year.

Nutrition can help build immunity to diseases, and “the social connections we make over food,” also are important, Kitchin said.

Multiple players have mobilized to help the region’s lunch sites adjust, including Sound Generations, which has switched 18 Hyde shuttles to delivery duty, and Metro, which has dedicated 30 Access drivers. Metro’s involvement began as experiment, but “the project has gone so well that we’ve tripled the scheduling staff assigned to this,” spokeswoman Torie Rynning said.

Now the transit agency is “working with more than 25 nonprofit partners and serving around 3,200 households with groceries or hot meals,” Rynning added.

At her White Center home, Adelfa Pinlac, 74, checks out a box of food from the Filipino Community Center. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
At her White Center home, Adelfa Pinlac, 74, checks out a box of food from the Filipino Community Center. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Frozen meals are part of the picture, as well. The Meals on Wheels program, managed here by Sound Generations, served more than 2,600 participants last year (each participant can order up to 28 frozen meals at a time). Since the coronavirus arrived, new applications have surged. Sound Generations received 237 applications last month, versus 154 in March 2019, and the program’s waitlist is now six to eight weeks, spokeswoman Brittany Blue said.

Food banks also have seen demand pick up since the pandemic started, while volunteer numbers have shrunk. “We’re anecdotally hearing … a 50% to 100% increase in clients seeking services,”said Katie Rains, a policy adviser at the state Department of Agriculture. Washington’s National Guard deployed this month to support that work, she noted.

The food banks mostly are having customers pick up groceries, rather than shop around inside. But some are making deliveries, so clients don’t have to leave home. While people ages 19-54 outnumber seniors in Washington, older people visited food banks 27.6% more often last year, a state report said.

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At Rainier Valley Food Bank, the switch to home delivery looked daunting, executive director Gloria Hatcher-Mays said. Then Columbia City resident Garret Wilkerson emailed to volunteer and he mentioned his day job: air traffic controller.

Now Wilkerson, who knows how to “bring order to what otherwise would be chaos,” has helped build Rainier Valley’s distribution model. He entered client data into computer software that creates efficient routes, lists how many bags each vehicle can hold and connects to the Google Maps app that volunteer drivers use.

To execute “a complete 180” like Wilkerson and Rainier Valley have pulled off, “you have to close your eyes and jump in,” he said.

Serious challenges remain for the various programs. Donations have declined and grocery prices have soared, coordinators said. Moving to delivery has required sites to spend extra on packaging materials, gas and additional work hours.

Araya said his center was running out of money until obtaining emergency funding from the Seattle Foundation, Group Health Foundation and the city.

Two bills recently passed by Congress, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, include dollars for nutritional programs that serve seniors, according to Will Lemke, a Seattle spokesman with ADS who said the agency is working to provide more assistance.

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Volunteers creativity

Mae Ann Panitan, senior lunch coordinator, sorts through food supplies before they are included in individual meals at the Filipino Community Center of Seattle. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Mae Ann Panitan, senior lunch coordinator, sorts through food supplies before they are included in individual meals at the Filipino Community Center of Seattle. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Normally, the auditorium at Seattle’s Filipino Community Center swirls with laughter.

Now only 10 people are allowed inside the center at a time. They worked quickly and quietly on April 7, writing names and notes on grocery bags and cardboard boxes with black markers.

Help for seniors

  • Those who need assistance can access Community Living Connections for objective, confidential information about community resources and service options. Go online or call the toll-free number at (844) 348-5464. Community Living Connections is supported by Aging and Disability Services for Seattle and King County.
  • Seattle's Human Services Department is maintaining a coronavirus Seattle-area emergency food map with information about food banks, meal locations and other sites where people of all ages can access food.
  • For people in need during the coronavirus crisis, here's a list of food and other resources available.
  • To learn of ways to support local food programs, visit The Seattle Times resource guide.

“We have a little system here,” coordinator Mae Ann Panitan said, consulting her spreadsheet. “The boxes are for couples and the bags are for individuals. ‘H’ is for Hyde and ‘A’ is for Access.”

In the kitchen, program director Emma Catague dished pork adobo, rice and bright orange melon slices into Styrofoam containers. Preparing meals with only 10 people has been challenging, she said. The center initially hoped to serve 50 people each day. “Yesterday, we had more than 100 requests,” Catague said.

She turned back to work, anxious about the shuttles arriving at 11 a.m. Panitan used a metal cart to roll packages outside to Hyde shuttles driver Manuel Fernandez. The job allows Fernandez to maintain connections with seniors whom he would otherwise be driving around.

“I put it right by the door. Then I ring the bell and wait until they come out,” he said. The seniors usually wave to indicate they appreciate Fernandez. “They don’t have to say so,” he said. “I know they do.”

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Far away in White Center, another driver delivered meals and a grocery box to Adelfa Pinlac and her husband. Pinlac misses the Filipino center and her Zumba class there. “They told us we could come to pick up,” the 74-year-old said. “But we have no masks, so we prefer to have this delivered.”

So many people are living close to the edge. In Shoreline, “people who aren’t even senior-center members are calling” for deliveries, program coordinator Donna Saltzberg said. Many clients “are waiting outside when we come,” said volunteer David Drummond, riding in a Hyde shuttle with grocery bags around his knees.

Behind the wheel was longtime driver Thai Le. He and Drummond bantered about their kids while steering through Shoreline. “That’s Thai’s bus,” Margaret Thue said, delighted to recognize his shuttle through her living room window. The 94-year-old last ventured outside March 8.

Born in Vietnam, Le lives in the Seattle area because strangers sponsored him years ago, as a refugee. Everyone needs help at some point, he said.

“When the country really needs you, you have to stand up,” said Le, explaining why he wanted to deliver to seniors during the crisis. Nodding toward Drummond, he added, “Someday, we’re going to get old, too.”