"We want to build a caring community around our seniors, so seniors don’t feel forgotten or alone,” explains Herb Price, a We Are Family volunteer.
Driving this effort is a belief that as we get to know one another we are enriched by diversity and more likely to fight to make sure no one is forgotten or displaced. It's a beautiful picture of community, bringing together young and old, black and white, all with diverse experiences and backgrounds.
One resident explains it this way, "We grow with each other… I think the volunteers also get something out of it to come and to see this reality of how we live here."
It's easy to forget how intrinsically valuable community events are. Seniors enjoy concerts, film showings, community walks, book discussion groups just as much if not more than many other demographics. These gatherings not only provide important day-to-day support for seniors, but also solidarity in their struggles to survive on their meager incomes in a rapidly changing society that does not always value or make space for them.
It makes me feel so delighted to know that someone cares, that they go out of their way to care for the needy, for the hungry...because that is what we are to do, to look out for one another—for the destitute, for the homeless, for the sick, for those who don’t have family.Ms. Jacqueline TwittyLong-time DC resident
Food + Friendship
Every other Saturday, volunteers gather at Metropolitan Community Church in the Shaw neighborhood to deliver grocery bags to the surrounding seniors.
From 9:00 a.m. until the early afternoon, groups of volunteers break out into the local community with grocery bags full of rice, tuna, cheese and beans.
Founder and co-leader Mark Andersen begins every Saturday delivery by explaining why the visits matter. Volunteers are literally feeding their neighbors, and “we’re also trying to feed their souls,” he explains. His address is contextual, addressing the history of segregation in this corner of Northwest DC as much as it is a pep talk. Andersen is both a partial product of and influence on the DC punk community, so the encouragement is always “us” and “we.” Dressed in his uniform of a black hoodie and black jeans, he still blends in at shows at the Black Cat, if his white hair does give away many years in the scene.
One of the volunteers, Ben, who oversees the sign-ins, estimates between 20 and 75 people show up in a given week. "Anywhere from a local DC high school to people that are Turkish exchange students. It's a very broad swath of people that come together." It’s always a mix of old and new. Sometimes, even corporations will bring a group by for community service.
After Andersen talks, his co-director Tulin Ozdeger (also his spouse) takes over to address the logistics. With that, volunteers are tasked with distributing boxes of cheese throughout the bags. "If there's one thing that's missing that will draw phone traffic to me, it's cheese,” says Andersen. Though easy to come by and relatively cheap, he says, “for our seniors it's like a block of gold."
The store of food is outside the church, stuffed in a silver Dodge Ram 3500. The 15-seat van has enough room for exactly one person to pilot the heap of triple-bagged goods. Each group unloads their share and drives off to an assigned housing complex.
Our group of four is assigned to Sursum Corda. The low-income housing co-op is named for a portion of the Eucharistic Prayer, which loosely translates to “lift up your hearts.” Even without a visual of the 199-unit complex, the medieval-sounding name offers the first hint of a place out of step with the rest of the city, perhaps a city pacing deliberately beyond it.
The development is a sand-colored labyrinth of houses and apartments, many with entrances tucked behind dark brown fence doors. Though the cracked asphalt is pitched uneasily through the co-ops corridors, there are signs that it was meant to be a welcoming place. A handful of lean metal turtles don’t offer much use, but a brand new playground in the southwestern corner colors Sursum Corda with hope for the future.
A series of mixed-income high-rise apartments are on deck to replace the existing structures. Though the seniors in the development will be offered space in the future Sursum Corda, it’s not clear where they will live in the meantime. This uncertainty looms heavy for many seniors and long-time residents of the community.
Of the four of us, Jill Bashore is the first timer. But Bashore has worked with seniors as a Certified Nursing Assistant before and is already prepared for the task. I ask her what advice she’d give to someone about how to best interact with seniors. “Most of the time I think it's best to just shut up and listen. Just let them talk,” she says.
Noel Schroeder agrees, “A lot of the things that these seniors are lacking is because they've lost a lot of the community that they have lived around for a long time.” Schroeder is our We Are Family vet. She joined three years ago, around the same time she arrived in the city. “I heard about We Are Family through a Peace Corps group.” Since then, she has become an active part of the organization, conducting both grocery deliveries and weekly visits.
“A couple weeks ago I was delivering in Columbia Heights and I ended the day listening to one of the seniors and I just spent the rest of the afternoon with her, we watched Shaft,” explains Schroeder. “She just wanted someone to spend time with her because she doesn't get out of her house.” It’s not an uncommon occurrence either. Seniors don’t always want volunteers to come in and talk, but when they do, it is a chance for We Are Family to own its name. Groceries are valuable, but they’re also a reason to talk, to peer in and check on some of DC’s forgotten.
We Are Family does the simple repetitive work of deliberately listening to seniors in DC. Whether their concerns are practical (grocery delivery) or personal (they want to tell you about their day), a bridge has been built in the form of a diverse community committed to serving and helping one another.
We All Belong
"Volunteers knock on the door, and we see someone else, mostly young students," explains Little Sister Francisca, a senior and long-time resident of DC's now-burgeoning neighborhood, Columbia Heights.
“It brings a lot of joy for all the elderly people who don’t see many happy faces. The bag of food isn’t the important thing, but it is a way to interact with the people who live here.”
Francisca touches on a key focus of We Are Family—relationship. Community is built on relationships, and We Are Family provides the space and opportunity for relationships among seniors and young people from all walks of life to grow and flourish.
According to Sister Francisca, the power and potential of connectedness cannot be overstated, "That's how we change the world...one-to-one."
And then there's Jacqueline Twitty. Ms. Twitty lived in DC for nearly sixty years. Her soft spoken manner hides the grit and determination that earned her a job with the IRS at age 19, just days after moving to the city. “I continued to work and prove myself worthy and decided to go to business school.” She became a secretary and went on to earn a master’s degree, then worked as a special needs teacher, finally retiring 20 years ago.
Despite decades spent pouring into children in her classroom and in her community, Twitty admits that as seniors, “It seems that some communities just forget about us.” But We Are Family honors senior citizens by seeking them out to discover where there are needs and then meets those needs with practical support. Through food deliveries, transportation assistance, friendly visits and so much more, volunteers come alongside these seniors, reminding them they are not forgotten.
Practical + Relational
For many seniors, grocery delivery service can mean the difference between daily meals and going hungry each month. DC has one of the highest rates of food insecurity among seniors. According to a recently published national report, 15.5% of seniors (9.6 million people) face the threat of hunger. In DC, this percentage is higher still, with 20% of seniors lacking sufficient food supply.
“If it wasn’t for Mark, sometimes we wouldn’t have food to carry us to the next pay day,” says Ms. Twitty.
Co-Director Mark Andersen often spends evenings delivering food around the city and sometimes even brings his young son along. “It’s delightful to have children come by. It gives me a feeling that someone cares,” Twitty says, noting that building relationships and creating a caring network is the foundation of We Are Family’s work. Volunteers visit seniors in their homes, take them grocery shopping and even drive them to doctor's appointments. In doing so, they ensure that seniors have access to both food and companionship.
Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.Mother Teresa
John Robinson, a recipient of We Are Family, reiterates that the organization is not just about food service. Volunteers and seniors from diverse races, ages and backgrounds cross paths and become part of each others’ lives.
“We Are Family is important to us because it gives us a second voice. Seniors don’t need to just be occupied—they need to be shown as human beings.” says Robinson. As volunteers take the time to cultivate friendships, they meet both practical and relational needs.
Over the years, We Are Family has fostered community in streets once lit up by racism and protests. For many residents who experienced the city in the midst of the civil rights movement, unity is not easily come by.
In the late 1960s, burning and riots ravaged parts of Washington, DC. Decades later, many of these areas (notably U Street corridor, Shaw, H Street NE) are experiencing an influx of new residents and rising development.
But resident Elizabeth Hicks explains how We Are Family brings a refreshing sense of harmony to these neighborhoods through the care that culturally diverse volunteers and community members have for each other and their community. “We Are Family brings together different kinds of people.”
Bringing people together is the first step; building relationships the next. Relationship then fosters mutual respect, understanding and unity. As Ms. Hicks attests, oftentimes connection and understanding arrive in the form of the mundane... in her case, a decorative rooster and potato-cooking advice.
Ms. Twitty echoes the sentiment of her many neighbors, “We Are Family promotes unity among the different cultures that live in this community, and in this apartment building..." For seniors and long-time residents at risk of being forgotten, this is no small thing. In fact, Ms. Twitty continues, "We would be lost without We Are Family.”
The seniors served by We Are Family have walked many miles, seen many things and lived many years. Those years are full of stories, and the stories weave a tapestry of the deep, rich and, at times, tumultuous history the city and its local neighborhoods have weathered.
Jacqueline Twitty recalled the vast changes she witnessed throughout her sixty years in DC — from the segregation of the 1950s to the riots of the late 60s to the modern development and revitalization of the Columbia Heights neighborhood many We Are Family residents now call home.
Sister Francisca remembers a time when her neighborhood looked very different. “I lived here 15 years ago, and when I came to live here some of my friends said, 'No. There, we will not come to visit you in that building.' And so the building itself and the whole neighborhood had a very bad reputation… After Martin Luther King got killed, the whole neighborhood was totally destroyed, and everybody avoided coming here.”
The riots of 1968 are not just a historical event for DC resident Elizabeth Hicks. With two young daughters at home, the upheaval hit close to home: "I had never seen [anything] like that before, you know? Burning and stuff, and I was afraid that our house might [catch] on fire... I lived right on some parts where they did a lot of burning... I was afraid because I had my children with me."
In a city as transient as Washington, DC, history is easily lost. But in this small community, history comes to life through the stories of a group of seniors who have experienced it first-hand. John Robinson remembers his early years in DC: "I've been through the whole period of segration... You were expected to get up and give white folks a seat if the bus was crowded... I've seen signs where it says, 'No negros allowed. No colored people allowed.'"
Among the We Are Family community, bridging the age gap means more than a listening ear or helping hand for the elderly — It also translates into important history shared, lessons learned and wisdom passed on to a new generation. As Sister Francisca points out, it is not only the seniors who benefit from these relationships, but "the young people who are touched and changed and have the opportunity of seeing something else." She continues, "Friendship to me is the greatest gift. It’s not the bag of food. It’s the friendship."
Friendship to me is the greatest gift. It’s not the bag of food. It’s the friendship.
The work of We Are Family is many things — it is food for the hungry, care for the elderly, assistance for the needy and friendship for the lonely. But even more than that, We Are Family is community re-imagined, a place where old and young have something to offer one another and are brought together in a mutually beneficial and life-changing way.
Perhaps it is best summed up by one simple word: love.
Simply put, Bittersweet Monthly tells stories. We tell stories of organizations creatively and effectively addressing issues of social need. Through the power of art and design, we bring to life the inspiring efforts of unsung heroes and share the good work being done in our city and around the world.
We Are Family is one such organization, full of unsung heroes.
As we began the process of crafting this story, I found myself captivated not only by the larger story — one of a truly unique community of people coming together to meet both practical and relational needs — but also by the smaller stories, the ones shared by residents like Sister Francisca, Elizabeth Hicks, John Robinson and Jacqueline Twitty.
The residents served by We Are Family are not merely seniors in need of a helping hand; rather, they are witnesses to history, lives lived, lessons learned and experience gained.
In this story, many nuggets of wisdom were shared by one particular resident — Jacqueline Twitty — a kind soul with a sweet voice, who passed away on December 6, 2015. She will never read this story or see the impact of her words, but her legacy lives on through the work of We Are Family.
And so, it is my hope that we will all remember the words of Ms. Twitty: “It makes me feel so delighted to know that someone cares, that they go out of their way, caring —caring for the needy, for the hungry… Because that is what we are to do, to look out for one another — for the destitute, for the homeless, for the sick, for those who don’t have family.”
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly