By: Zulma Zabala
I have the honor of leading East End Neighborhood House. East End is a 114-year-old neighborhood center nestled on Woodhill Road servicing the Buckeye neighborhood and the city-at-large. Founded on the tenements of the Settlement House movement, East End addresses all stages of the life cycle giving special reverence to seniors. Since the 1940s, seniors at East End have fiercely voiced the value of honoring each other! Wisdom Keepers, as we dearly address them, are, in fact, the ones that remind us of where we’ve been as a community and give us direction on where we should go on behalf of community. It should then be no surprise that this letter is specifically focusing on the well-being of all seniors in Cleveland. I’m choosing to share on our experience, to highlight the strength of community leaderships existing in our neighborhoods! The chosen mayor must have vision to include community voice in their service to the city of Cleveland.
Wisdom Keepers, as we dearly address them, are, in fact, the ones that remind us of where we’ve been as a community and give us direction on where we should go on behalf of community.
COVID-19 came into our world and initially claimed the lives of many of our seniors; too many while in the very senior homes we expect them to be protected. Our senior centers, such as the one hosted on East End’s campus, is usually where seniors can confidently sustain their independence, avoiding isolation, and enjoy the best part of their golden years amongst peers. Before the pandemic, active seniors were picked up at their home doorsteps and brought to the center for meals, activities and resources specifically devised around their needs. Seniors unable to come to the senior center, because of physical disabilities, are also connected to East End through daily meals on wheels service. Because COVID-19 claimed the lives of so many while in senior homes, the sanctuaries created in senior centers were suddenly in danger of becoming the next location to claim many more senior lives.
The team at East End shifted into immediate action under new precautions. Senior center in-person activities across the city had to be suspended, but service could and would not be denied! We at East End, like other neighborhood centers, never ceased servicing our most vulnerable. We understood that the consequences of lives taken by isolation could have added to the growing number of lives taken by COVID-19. Over 120 seniors received meals at home; deliveries took a bit longer as we used these opportunities to connect while social distancing. We even lead caravans to drop off flowers, a card or a wave during some of our seniors’ birthdays. The number of participants grew, as new seniors or their loved ones began to call concerned about how seniors would remain safe. Then, as we settled into new practices, the stark reality of a serious digital divide created new challenges. To date, we are still strategizing as a collective with local leaders and funders on how to best address the digital divide reality amongst seniors and overall families!
Because COVID-19 claimed the lives of so many while in senior homes, the sanctuaries created in senior centers were suddenly in danger of becoming the next location to claim many more senior lives.
Finally, our plates have been full, lives taken by this virus have been too many… for some of us the losses are personal. Additionally, East End’s staff, who are almost all African Americans and all of color, have endured not only the fears of this virus and the stress of sustaining our safety but also the growing concerns over race matters. During this time, one of our staff members unfortunately faced the fear of the “what could have been” in an encounter with police, on his way from picking up masks for our center children. One other staff member, who is also a senior, shared candidly that his level of stress had intensified because of the virus and the recent occurrences about police brutality. I wrote a letter for all my team members, at their request, to show the police in case they ever got stopped on their way to or from East End.
In my 10 years of service as president & CEO, I’ve seen much and I am fully aware that social service work is no “crystal stair,” nonetheless, I have remained passionate about this work. Still, 2020 and 2021 have stirred the souls and minds of the strongest of us in this work, and I believe that the only way to stay the course is to sustain the collective of us. At East End we show up ready to serve with a spirit of Ubuntu, a South African philosophy that teaches that we must see each other in each other and that our lives are dependent upon one another. New leaders, such as the next mayor, must lead within all levels of the city inclusive of Cleveland’s amazing and resilient neighborhoods. Their leadership must SEE their next steps in the strengths, vulnerabilities and challenges of those served. Our seniors are strong and vulnerable; their wisdom is gold and their leadership critical for the collective! We should take care of them as we wish to be cared for if we are blessed to reach their age someday! The next mayor should come visit and see about our Wisdom Keepers often, not just during voting season, and I promise he, she or they will gain the necessary inspiration to best serve the city. See you soon!
President & CEO, East End Neighborhood House