Project Hope Offers Relief, Reassurance to Vulnerable Residents

Photo courtesy Burbank Volunteer Program
The Burbank Volunteer Program team helping to coordinate Project Hope, which pairs older adults and volunteers so those at risk can safely stay in their homes, includes recreation coordinator Marcus Munguia, Aimmy Galvan and Lacey Cabrera.

If the people can’t come to the city’s support program, the program will go to the people.
The Burbank Volunteer Program started a group dedicated to supporting older adults and people with mobility challenges a few years ago, long before the coronavirus pandemic took hold and effectively kept anyone at risk for health complications from the disease completely quarantined.
Now that group, Project Hope, has further embodied its name by offering — at no charge — to do essential errands like grocery shopping and prescription refill pickup through a small army of volunteers, who’ve also extended companionship to those who’ve had to self-isolate, especially those who live alone.
“In mid-March when everything began happening at once and so many people had to completely keep inside, the program became a real relief to our participants,” said Marcus Munguia, recreation coordinator for the program. “We wanted to keep everyone safe, including our volunteers, but we especially wanted to make sure our seniors didn’t have to leave their home unless they wanted to.”
About 15,000 people older than 65 reside in Burbank, according to the U.S. Census website, and the city operates two facilities that provide activities and programs for residents 55 and older, the Joslyn Adult Center and Tuttle Center. The McCambridge Recreation Center also provides some programs.
But since the pandemic took hold and the dangers facing older adults became more apparent, the centers have been closed, making Project Hope all the more valuable.
“We highlighted that the program was for errands and keeping people safe in their homes, but it became apparent that as time went on, our volunteers developed relationships with the participants, and it became a lot more meaningful,” Munguia said.
The volunteers, each paired with a participant, would often stay on the phone to chat at length after inquiring about the shopping list. Some shared life stories and experiences, and often talk would revolve around the news, family, people they missed. Some of the volunteers began delivering flowers or cards even when they didn’t have groceries to drop off, tokens of kindness toward a new friend and reminders not to feel alone.
“There have been a lot of sweet stories coming out of the partnerships,” he added. “It’s been a really big community effort.”
So far, Project Hope has garnered about 37 active volunteers and 68 participants. All volunteers undergo background checks to ensure the safety of those participating, said Lacey Cabrera, a recreation leader with the program.
There was a bit of a turnover in the typical pool of volunteers during the pandemic, she noted, with many younger people offering services, perhaps because they were home from school or had been furloughed or left unemployed. No matter the reason, they were all eager to jump in and help.
“As soon as the pandemic hit, we had a rush of people who reached out right away. … They really wanted to make a difference, and I found it interesting that they were specifically concerned about the seniors in Burbank,” Cabrera said. “I would call to check in on some of the participants and see how the program was working for them, that’s when I found out how happy they were and enjoying each other’s company. I didn’t realize our volunteers would go so above and beyond.”
One of those volunteers, Justin Merino, grew up in Burbank and had recently relocated to the city when the crisis hit. An active youth volunteer at the Red Cross, Merino was eager to get back into ways to make a difference. When his career was put on hold due to the coronavirus, he jumped into Project Hope as a way to be proactive and keep positive.
“It’s been really rewarding; I love kids and older people and I was partnered with a really wonderful lady — she’s very independent and spirited and in great health, and I really enjoyed helping her,” said Merino, who also volunteers with an agency providing services to the homeless and has trained to become an EMT.
Merino was paired with Sally Bush, who lives in a local retirement community and typically did her shopping online, until pandemic-induced hoarding took hold and she could no longer find her items. She praised Project Hope and Merino, whom she called a “very resourceful young man.”
“Justin has been wonderful and very thoughtful and caring,” Bush said. “There was a lot of panic buying and people were hoarding, but he was able to go to the stores early in the morning and even talked to the manager and was able to get me the items I couldn’t find anywhere.”
He even offered to walk her dog, Bush recalled, chuckling at the idea because she’s been so eager to get out and do that herself. She values her independence, she noted, but appreciates that Project Hope has been there when she most needed it.
Mayor Sherry Springer emphasized that the program was created for just that — to help older adults continue to live independently in their own homes, providing the occasional services when needed. But Project Hope has evolved even more for what it was initially intended, and Springer foresees it continuing to foster the success it’s earned.
“Project Hope allows us to connect with our most vulnerable residents and help fill basic needs. The project has grown tremendously since the beginning of the pandemic, and I’ll do all I can to continue its role in helping our seniors and adults with disabilities into the future, once through the emergency,” Springer said. “It’s also really enhanced our community connectedness and encouraged how to be a good neighbor — as residents of Burbank there is so much we can do to all be proactive about helping the people around us.”
Springer also encouraged anyone in the community who needs assistance to reach out. The city’s website details a list of resources, including coronavirus testing sites, food assistance and job assistance. It’s at burbankca.gov.

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