The Community Ambassador Program for Seniors – a successful Fremont initiative

By Asha Chandra


A Sikh Ambassador

The city of Fremont in the Bay Area was once a quiet enclave of white middle-class families. But as emerging technologies in nearby Silicon Valley and the area’s relative affordability drew immigrants from all over the globe, demographics began to shift rapidly.

Today, not only is the area’s original population aging, with over 12% of its residents over 60, but almost 47% of its residents are foreign born and over 57% speak a language other than English in their homes. While many of the younger immigrants have assimilated, their parents and more recently arrived refugees are challenged by a language and system they don’t understand. Today the senior population of 30,000 in the City of Fremont resembles a mini United Nations, with its own need for diplomacy and understanding between its many ethnic and faith groups.

As communities across the country seek new ways to improve the lives of their seniors, Fremont and its Tri-City Elder Coalition—an affiliation of over 60 community, health and governmental agencies—has faced the added challenge of extreme cultural diversity. To address this need, the City of Fremont Human Services Department and its partner organizations developed the Community Ambassador Program for Seniors (CAPS), a grant-funded program by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The best way to develop a program,” explained Suzanne Shenfil, Director of Human Services for the City of Fremont “was to create an interactive model that engaged the many diverse groups that make up this community.”

The CAPS program is a unique civic partnership between the City of Fremont’s Human Services Department and 7 local cultural and faith-based organizations: Centerville Presbyterian Church, Muslim Support Network, Sikhs Engaged in Volunteer Activities, India Community Center, Taiwanese Senior Help Association, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Latinos), and St. Anne Catholic Parish (Filipinos).

CAPS integrates immigrants through a strength-based model that engages the full community and supports seniors in their own language, within their own cultural norms, and does so where seniors live, worship, and socialize. Ambassadors serve as a bridge between the formal network of social services and their respective faith and cultural communities.

The City of Fremont, San Jose State University, and the Stanford Geriatric Education Center collaborated to develop the comprehensive CAPS curriculum. In February 2009, CAPS graduated an additional 39 new ambassadors. To date, 88 ambassadors have completed the 40-hour training to learn how to provide information and referral services to seniors and families focused on issues such as housing, transportation, health benefits, social security, and legal assistance.

Many local senior service providers have actively participated as presenters in the training, and are listening to the needs of the diverse community.  One of our hospitals is learning about the needs of Muslim patients (e.g. they now know that Jell-O is considered an animal product not suited for vegetarians and that Muslim women find it shameful to be examined by a male doctor.)


The Muslim Support Network

CAPS trains and develops natural networks and gives them the tools they need to serve their own seniors using methods that fit their unique cultural norms.  For example, Sikh seniors are seen at the Gurdwara, and Filipino seniors are seen at their church, where they regularly come for worship, companionship and food.  The India Community Center has its ambassadors housed at their community center where they are well known to the senior attendees.  They also do some home visiting in order to “take the center to the community” when seniors are home-bound.

Over 600 older adults have been served by the CAPS program to date. Says Prafullata Bir,  one of the volunteer Community Ambassadors, “I am like a bridge between people coming from India and people who are here as Indians for a long time.”

Adds CAPS site coordinator Pragna Dadbhawala, “What is wonderful about CAPS is that it not only helps our seniors, but it uses my talents and my culture in the right manner.”

The program has been met with enthusiastic response from the immigrant community. The effort is now to see if similar programs can be introduced in other communities.

To find out more about the CAPS program or if you are aware of a senior who can benefit from the program, check out

Asha Chandra is the Marketing Coordinator and Program Manager, Community Ambassador Program for Seniors,Pathways to Positive Aging Project,City of Fremont Human Services.

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