By Barry Shatzman
Something wasn't right. The woman filled out the forms to start receiving Social Security benefits, and the money began to flow into her bank account. Yet she still was borrowing from friends for her day-to-day expenses.
Not understanding English well, she didn't realize that she could withdraw the money.
By the time Pragna Dadbhawala, a member of the city's Community Ambassador Program for Seniors (CAPS), stepped in to help, things had gotten even worse for the woman. The Social Security Administration noticed she wasn't using the money, so they cut off her payments altogether. "She was depressed. A volunteer had helped her fill out form to get the Social Security, and then this happened. I helped her with her appeal. I spoke in her native language," Dadbhawala said.
At a ceremony Wednesday morning at Fremont's Teen Center, 22 volunteer "ambassadors" joined the CAPS program after completing an intense training course. They joined a previous class of 27 members, who already have helped a few hundred seniors since the program began operating late last year.
Run by Fremont's Human Services department, the CAPS program links seniors to services that can help them with health care, housing, transportation, legal issues, and a wide range of other areas they might need help in but not know where to turn.
What makes the program unique is that the ambassadors help clients from sites such as religious and cultural centers, and speak with them in their preferred language. That is the only way many seniors are likely to find out about programs that can help them, CAPS Program Manager Asha Chandra said. "A lot of families won't think of the city as the first place to go. They go to churches, etc. So why not take the service to where they congregate?" Chandra said.
To become ambassadors, volunteers learn everything from active listening skills to what types of services are available, in a 5-week training course that meets twice a week for 3-1/2 hours. Most topics are taught by the agencies that provide each service, so prospective ambassadors not only learn what the agency can do but they also establish contacts within each agency, Ray Grimm, coordinator for the city's Pathways to Positive Aging program said.
Whether a church, mosque, synagogue, or cultural center, each ambassador works exclusively with seniors from their own site – acting as a bridge between the ethnic and cultural groups they belong to and formal services.
Some already were already providing a similar service informally. "I was taking seniors where they wanted to go," said Myrla Raymundo, the new CAPS site coordinator at St. Anne's Catholic Church in Union City. Raymundo said that being an ambassador actually will make the role easier for her. "Now i (I) can do information and referrals," she said.
In one sense, modern society creates the need for a program such as CAPS. Many people come to the United States because their children are here, said Vishnu Sharma, who helped establish the program.
A director at the India Community Center in Milpitas, Sharma said that older immigrants he knows had successful careers where they came from, but here they are unfamiliar with the language and customs, they don't drive, and when their children go off to work they are left either to take care of their grandchildren or just to watch TV.
"They lead a very lonely life. They are accomplished people – judges, doctors – but now are in an environment where they're strangers. They feel redundant and suffer from loss of self-worth," Sharma said.
But the problem is not a new one, Fremont Mayor Bob Wasserman said in his keynote speech at the graduation ceremony. Wasserman, 74, recounted his experiences growing up in an East Los Angeles community made up of Russian and Japanese immigrants.
"They would not call the government for anything. Especially the police," Wasserman said.
And then, after the ceremony, Wasserman said he recalled something.
"When I think back, I realize that each culture group had an 'ambassador'. So we're just picking up a natural thing and making it work better," he said.
The CAPS program is in the process of developing a Web site. Until it is up, you can learn more about CAPS by contacting Asha Chandra at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone interested in available programs for seniors can call the Senior Hotline at (510) 574-2041.
Reproduced with permission from www.newbor.com