The Silent Struggle
Little Sister Francisca has lived in the unassuming Samuel Kelsey apartment building, in the now-bustling commercial center of Columbia Heights, for two decades. During that time she and her fellow senior neighbors have seen a lot, but nothing quite like the coronavirus. Francisca can’t say exactly how many residents have been lost during the crisis, but the depth of the tragedy is profound.
“When somebody dies in the building it's never put on the board,” she laments. “Nothing is said about it. No picture on the wall, not which apartment it was. Nothing.” Unless family members choose to share a public update, Francisca can only tell that someone passed away when a new resident moves in to take their place.
Even identifying the spread of COVID-19 throughout the building can be difficult. To protect privacy, staff members share anonymous updates when someone falls ill, but seniors have no way to know if it’s someone in close proximity to their own apartment. Residents have learned to check in with their neighbors directly to keep each other safe. Francisca contracted the virus in mid-November (she’s since recovered) and made it a point to share her diagnosis widely and publicly.
The combination of unexpressed grief, uncertainty, and anxiety have cast a pall over the usually vibrant community. “There is a certain coldness in our building that I think many of the elderly suffer from,” Francisa observes.
When BitterSweet last met Little Sister Francisca, more than four years ago, she spoke at length about the importance of one-on-one connection for DC’s seniors, especially those without family members to care for them. “That’s how we change the world,” she said.
Unfortunately, physical distancing requirements now limit opportunities for those crucial relationships. Instead, many seniors spend their days alone, exacerbating depression and loneliness. This mental health crisis has combined with persistent economic vulnerability and the threat of the coronavirus to leave them more exposed than ever before.
Carolyn Vinson is president of the resident association at NCBA Estates in Columbia Heights, just down the road from Francisca. She was born and raised in Northwest DC, and she’s watched the 14th Street corridor transform dramatically over the past few decades.
Although she’s disappointed by the limitations the pandemic has put on social events in her building, Carolyn counts herself lucky. Her daughter and two adult granddaughters regularly check in to make sure she has everything she needs.
“I really have not had any challenges, as far as being able to get what I need,” Carolyn says. “But so many of [my neighbors] have children that either don't live in the area or the children don't interact with the parents. I try to be available for those times and those people.”
The obstacles facing Francisca, Carolyn, and their neighbors are easily obscured by the relentless news cycle of a global catastrophe, leaving them to struggle out of the public eye in the city’s many high rise senior living facilities and modest row houses. But the persistent efforts of We Are Family, a grassroots nonprofit in Northwest DC, are helping to ensure they aren’t forgotten.
Seniors from the Asbury Apartments in NW DC come out for pickup.
Since 2004, We Are Family has provided monthly grocery deliveries to DC’s low-income elderly residents. According to co-founder Mark Andersen, the organization’s guiding principle is quite simple: “that we see each other as sisters and brothers, and recognize that we have a responsibility to take care of each other.”
Practically, that means taking the time to check in on senior neighbors who have no one else to care for them. They depend on the regular grocery deliveries to make ends meet when social security checks and retirement income run out at the end of each month. In a rapidly growing city like DC, Mark, co-director Tulin Ozdeger, and their team aim to make it possible for seniors to “age in place,” providing practical support and companionship so they can afford to spend their retirement years safely at home.
The pandemic left We Are Family at a crossroads. “Our seniors are arguably the most at-risk population in the city,” explains Tulin Ozdeger, who is also Mark's wife. “Our challenge was how to get them what they need without putting them at risk.”
Instead of pausing operations or pushing through with business as usual, Mark and Tulin got creative. Thanks to a combination of quick thinking and hard work, they managed to not only serve seniors in the middle of a pandemic, but also add new members to their community. After all, what is family for if not to weather life's challenges together?
Prairies, Punk Rock, and Philanthropy
Mark Andersen grew up far from Washington DC’s alphabetical streets, on a ranch in the unnamed prairie of Northeastern Montana. “A middle of nowhere place,” as he puts it. For most of his childhood he dreamed of getting out. After graduating with a degree in Political Science and History from Montana State University in 1983, he did just that.
Mark enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, fixated on earning a prestigious degree followed by an equally prestigious career. At the same time, he nurtured his rock and roll aspirations as a participant in DC’s politically-charged punk movement. Mark co-founded Positive Force DC, an activist collective, with friends from the punk scene, which gave him his first taste of community organizing and fundraising. In 1989, looking for a way to make a difference in his new hometown, he stumbled onto a job at Emmaus Services for the Aging, a faith-driven “safety net” organization for DC seniors.
Mark Andersen and Tulin Ozdeger, co-directors and co-founders of We Are Family, now not only have to coordinate delivery day. They have to do it in the middle of a pandemic, when the seniors who depend on We Are Family are more in need than ever.
“I was a youth activist, but the opportunity presented itself and I grabbed it—maybe more to the point, it grabbed me—and here I am 32 years later,” he reflects.
During more than a decade at Emmaus, Mark found himself at the unlikely intersection of religious ministry, punk rock activism, and Black communities in DC. He became well-versed in the immense challenges facing elderly folks in the city, particularly low-income and Black seniors. It wasn’t long before that expertise became a passion; Mark still speaks with visible frustration about the way DC has forgotten long-established citizens.
“These are people who have accomplished truly significant things in the face of extraordinary obstacles,” he says of the senior community. Many faced legal segregation in the 1950s, witnessed riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, and lived through DC’s reputation as the nation’s “murder capital” in the 80s and 90s.
This crisis of racial justice and economic inequality and broken promises is not new. It goes back to the moment that Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘All men are created equal,’ on a piece of parchment as a slaveholder.
Mark Andersen, Co-Founder, We Are Family
These days, as DC gentrifies, neighborhoods are safer but also prohibitively expensive. Areas like Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant are filling up with transplants who lease luxury apartments and renovate million-dollar rowhomes without considering who they’re replacing: the people who built the very city they enjoy. Elders are forgotten and left unable to afford living in the place they call home.
“A lot of the folks that we serve have been here for decades,” says Francis Ramirez-O’Shea, a television and film producer and member of We Are Family’s board of directors. “They never realized that, even though they planned for it, they would have these issues trying to pay for their existence in retirement.”
Over the years, We Are Family has made it as easy as possible for seniors to join its program. It launched with a network of 50 beneficiaries in 2004, and by the beginning of 2020, they grew to serve more than 770. Tragically, as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy last spring, many food-focused nonprofits shut down or suspended operations right when the level of food insecurity increased citywide. As one of the only organizations providing immediate relief, We Are Family saw an average of 25 new grocery recipients added each month; they’re now approaching a total of 1,000.
Easter Brown, the vice chair of We Are Family’s board, and a senior living at the Golden Rule Apartments near North Capitol Street, says those deliveries have been a crucial resource and a welcome glimmer of hope.
“A lot of people lost their jobs, and a lot of people don't have money,” she says. “But the fact that they can see some groceries every month, that's a blessing.”
Do It Yourself - Do It For Others
In many ways, We Are Family was perfectly positioned for a global crisis. Its team has always been willing to figure things out on the fly. To hear Brian Duss, a founding board member, tell it, flexibility is the natural product of their rock and roll origins. Those roots run deeper than Mark’s own rebellious streak in the eighties. We Are Family launched with a $15,000 check from multi-platinum punk band Good Charlotte, and Dave Grohl—of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame—currently sits on the board.
“The spirit in which We Are Family was created is very much steeped in the DIY aesthetic that Washington, DC is known for,” Brian says. “You can either wait for people to do things or you can get busy and do them yourself.”
Those connections to the music scene also unlocked a creative collaboration that enabled We Are Family to serve the growing list of seniors on its delivery list. Ed Stack is a partner at I.M.P., an independent concert promotion company; he’s been a donor and supporter of We Are Family for many years. In the summer, when his team realized the pandemic was sticking around for the long haul, Ed offered the renowned 9:30 Club and the nearby Lincoln Theatre to store groceries.
I.M.P.’s generosity might seem surprising. After all, they’re choosing to share valuable resources when their own business is under intense pressure. But Ed simply sees it as the most efficient way to have the greatest impact. Why not put the space to good use?
“What I've always appreciated about what Mark does is that the benefits are to your neighbor, to the person that lives a block away, that lives in your area,” Ed says. “We Are Family is an invaluable service to the folks that were here before us and their neighborhood.”
We Are Family doesn’t have a nuanced five-year plan or intricate criteria to qualify seniors for their services. That’s partly because it needs to stay nimble to meet the needs of its community—but also because its team is too busy doing real work.
That penchant for action draws a diverse contingent of regular volunteers who are swept up in the simple joy of direct service and friendship.
I wish people would just come out, volunteer and know how amazing it feels. They'd be like, 'Oh my gosh, how have I not been doing this for decades?'
Brian Duss, Board Member, We Are Family
Ally Pham, a communications professional at the World Bank, discovered We Are Family through an employee donation matching program more than three years ago. The name stood out among thousands of nonprofits, and after Mark invited her to join a delivery day, she was hooked. Today, she’s a board member and vocally advocates for more young professionals to get involved with senior neighbors.
“We're just kind of living and associating ourselves with others who are very similar to us,” she says. “So it’s been really eye-opening, and it's definitely made me feel more part of the community in DC.”
Matt Connolly, a former journalist who now works for a labor union, discovered We Are Family by accident at a punk show seven years ago. Now Matt is a regular volunteer and We Are Family is one of the primary ways he stays engaged with his neighborhood. Before the pandemic, he enjoyed developing friendships with the seniors on his route. (Over the years, volunteers have been frequently invited in for coffee, to watch football games, or even just to stand at the door for a few minutes and hear about someone’s day.)
Volunteers in the parking lot of the Lincoln Theatre prepare boxes for delivery to hundreds of seniors every week.
“After getting to know everyone and seeing them on a regular basis, it's hard to stop coming,” he says.
We Are Family is also designed with a keen understanding of power structures, baking in processes to reinforce empowerment for DC seniors. Half of the seats on We Are Family’s board are reserved for seniors who receive its services. Delivery days and new signups are coordinated by dozens of “senior leaders,” like Carolyn Vinson and Little Sister Francisca, who relay their neighbors’ needs to Mark and Tulin.
“We have this model so that the thought processes, the input, and the life experience of the seniors that we're serving is informing the services that we provide,” explains Tulin.
Mark describes their strategy as a sweet spot between community organizing, which builds and expands power, and social services, which meet a direct need. Without both considerations, he warns, the provision of services can disempower the very community they’re intended for.
“We're not interested in being a garden variety nonprofit,” Mark says. “We want to be about something more ambitious and radical, in the sense of going to the root of issues...and building bridges between the different parts of our terribly divided community.”
Delivery from a Distance
For more than 15 years, delivery days began the same way: dressed in a black hoodie and jeans, Mark would greet volunteers at a local church with an energetic pep talk, explaining the importance of looking after their neighbors. Then he would invite them to form assembly lines and fill bags full of grocery staples before heading off with a list of seniors to visit.
Mark credits Tulin with adding a layer of operational prowess to the mostly informal process when she when she left her job as a lawyer and became co-director in 2008. During the pandemic, her talent for planning around any logistical hurdle has kicked into a higher gear.
The process begins on the Monday before each delivery, when Tulin sends a survey to volunteers confirming their participation, the size of their household, access to a vehicle, and the likelihood of recent exposure to the coronavirus. By Friday afternoon, she pulls all of that information into a cohesive plan; each volunteer receives a route and detailed instructions to minimize the health risk to seniors during delivery.
Volunteers Nolan Burger and Rachel Ko take groceries Adrien Sibert in DC's 16th Street Heights neighborhood.
Instead of a large gathering, volunteers arrive during staggered pickup times. They leave bags of groceries outside apartment doors and on porches to avoid unnecessary proximity. To keep seniors relationally connected, We Are Family has also replaced social visits with regular phone calls.
Although delivery days no longer include the close quarters camaraderie of a church sanctuary or the simple joy of lingering conversations with We Are Family’s community, the experience is still communal. It’s just a big family taking extra care to keep each other safe.
On a recent, brisk January morning, less than a dozen people milled about the parking lot of the Lincoln Theatre at any given moment—masked, bundled up, and braced against the winter wind. Boxes of food were stacked in various corners of the asphalt, and Tulin welcomed new arrivals with a clipboard, offering instructions and directing them to open loading zones. Volunteers offered smiles and waves to familiar faces, but the interactions were brief; to minimize crowds and make space for the next group of arrivals, they left as quickly as they came. These days, We Are Family looks like a fleet of Hondas and Subarus, dispatched across DC to remind seniors that someone is looking after them.
Today, almost a year into the pandemic, the delivery routine is a well-oiled machine. But early on, We Are Family’s speed was just as remarkable as the thoughtfulness of its response.
“Sometimes we were the only lifelines,” explains Jenifer Golson, the treasurer of the board. “We kept an inventory of paper towels and toilet paper and we made sure that our seniors were taken care of during the height of COVID. Since then, the DC government has stepped in a lot, but in the beginning, they didn't have it in place.”
I have had several neighbors tell me they called Mark to say, ‘I'm running out of food.’ Mark will get their name and their apartment number, and whether it's late in the day, or early in the day, a bag or two of groceries will come for that person.
Carolyn Vinson, Senior Leader, We Are Family
We Are Family’s community has also experienced its share of loss in the past 12 months—some seniors have passed away due to old age or existing conditions, but others have been victims of the coronavirus.
In those moments, the We Are Family community takes on yet another heartbreaking but essential role: collective grieving. In a city where many elders are forgotten, simply taking the time to honor and remember their legacy is a final opportunity to be present.
Gillian Meinzie-Enlis is a senior who began receiving deliveries from We Are Family during the pandemic. In October, she wrote a letter to Mark and Tulin thanking them for their support during her own difficult year:
“I had no idea that there were people to remember the seniors at all,” she wrote. “I am so grateful for your delivery. You see, I am all alone because I lost my husband to COVID-19, so your help is highly appreciated...I can’t say enough thanks.”
We Are Family is meeting practical short-term needs and also challenging the city to figure out what really matters, to build a community where seniors are no longer forgotten. And by responding to loss and hardship with direct action and companionship, it’s painting a vision of what that world might look like.
“The one thing I will say that has been quite amazing is the outpouring of love this year,” says Francis. “I think it's another reason why this work is addictive. It shows us that people are good, and it gives us hope that our future will be positive.”
A Legacy of Compassion
Asked what family means to him, Mark turns to a story from his Montana childhood. One year, his father—known for his grit and strength—fell terribly ill from an infection. He collapsed and was hospitalized, leaving no one to help Mark’s mother run the farm.
But in that moment of acute need, “so many people, all our neighbors, came together and did all the work that needed to be done, including getting the harvest in while my father was in the hospital,” he recalls.
Eventually Mark’s father recovered from the infection, although he passed away in 2004. Mark also lost his mother more recently, in November. Through tears, he expresses regret for the defiance of his early years in DC. “My trajectory was a rebellion against my upbringing and the whole county that I came from,” he says.
But eventually, Mark understood that his life of activism wasn’t a rebellion at all. It had its origins in his experiences back home, in a small town where everyone knew each other’s name, where his neighbors stepped in to support his mom and dad.
“I suddenly realized that the work I was doing here in the inner city was based on the same values that my parents had taught me: that you gotta take care of other people, and you gotta look out for each other,” he says. “We Are Family is essentially what my parents taught me to do.”
Today, seniors across DC are facing profound challenges, just like Mark’s own immediate family once did. He and Tulin have made it their mission to ensure these seniors not alone. For those who want to support We Are Family’s crucial work, their request is simple: donate if you can, and join a delivery day. The family is growing, and there’s always room for more.