project elderly care
Local realtor Dee Dee Vargas talks about how she, along with Barbie Gomez, came up with Project Elderly Care to assist seniors in the Pajaro Valley during the COVID-19 crisis. She is shown here helping to nag up sacks of food at a Walker Street storage building. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

WATSONVILLE—A warehouse in the heart of Watsonville’s industrial district sat mostly empty until about a month ago, when a local realtor converted it into a distribution center for coronavirus care packages.

Dee Dee Vargas, along with Pajaro Valley Unified School District bus driver Barbie Gomez, has convened a gaggle of volunteers and gathered donations to put together bags brimming with food and supplies for seniors.

These are delivered across the county to older adults who are quarantined in their homes under statewide coronavirus restrictions.

But the project was originally intended to be much smaller, Vargas said. 

“We had the idea we would feed, we thought it was going to be 100 of our local elderly,” Vargas said. 

That changed when she announced her project on social media. 

“One-hundred turned into 600, then turned into 900. This week is going to be 1,400,” Vargas said. 

Since the inception five weeks ago of Vargas’ project, called Project Elderly Care, several of her friends and many businesses have joined the team.

This includes Coast Produce, Dobler & Sons, S. Martinelli & Co., Second Harvest Food Bank and Ed Kelly.

One friend is sewing facemasks to be handed out to police officers and other service workers. Another is collecting pet supplies for the care packages. Pajaro Valley Cold Storage Company donated the warehouse space, which Project Elderly Care will share with Second Harvest.

“To get this thing up and running like this and being able to produce this much this week has absolutely been a godsend,” Vargas said. “There is no way even in my best of leadership abilities that I could have pulled this off without about 50 volunteers.”

Vargas also says she is working with a local nurse to provide home health care for the seniors.

“That way, as the need grows and people get sick, then we can schedule appointments for them to have in-home health care, with emergency rooms saved for urgent stuff,” she said. “That will keep the hospitals able to do what they do in emergency stuff and keep people out of ERs.”

The bags held toilet paper, bread, produce and canned goods, among other things.

“This should be enough in my hope to tide them over for a week, so we can deliver again on Thursday,” Vargas said. 

Vargas’ program is one of many that have been forced to change the way they deliver care to seniors as the shelter-in-place ordered at the county and state level has kept many in their residences.

Katie Nuñez, older adult services supervisor for the City of Watsonville, says that her department is now tasked with checking in daily with roughly 30 seniors that regularly came to the center but are now quarantined in their homes.

“These phone calls are really important for them,” she said. 

But making deeper connections, such as getting them involved in online activities such as exercise programs, can be challenging for a population that largely does not have access to computers, Nuñez said. 

“We’ve been trying to get creative with programs they can do from home,” she said.

They also get referrals to programs such as Meals on Wheels and Lift Line.

One way to help, Nuñez said, is to volunteer with programs such as the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County.

“If anyone’s able to help, it can mean a lot to these people,” she said. 

Administrators from Valley Heights and Valley Convalescent Hospital did not return several calls for comment. But a post on their website states that there are no confirmed cases at either facility.

The post also outlines some of the changes imposed on March 11 after coronavirus began sweeping the globe.

In-person visits by family and friends are currently prohibited.

“There are many ways to do this safely: telephone, email, text, video chat or social media,” the post states. “If you believe a visit is necessary, you must contact the nurses desk at Valley Convalescent Hospital or the front desk at Valley Heights.”

Hugs, handshakes and kisses and other signs of affection are discouraged among residents.

Watsonville Nursing Center and Post Acute Center also did not return a call for comment.

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General assignment reporter, covering nearly every beat. I specialize in feature stories, but equally skilled in hard and spot news. Pajaronian/Good Times/Press Banner reporter honored by CSBA.


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