The main prayer hall at Gurdwara Sahib Fremont, the Fremont Sikh temple, is a cavernous room. A beautiful marble center aisle leads to an altar, which contains the holy book, or Guru Granth Sahib. This is one of the biggest gurdwaras in the Bay Area -- every Sunday, around 3,000 people come to worship, eat, and find fellowship.
Outside the hall, it’s bustling. Kids laugh and play, friends and family chat while they stand in line for free vegetarian food, cars stream through the parking lot, and right in front of the main building, at a folding table covered with flyers, Jagmeet Kaur and Davinder Kaur are fielding some questions in Punjabi about Covered California.
Jagmeet and Davinder, no relation, are volunteers with Community Ambassadors for Seniors (CAPS), a city initiative to help seniors access services like health care and food assistance. The gentleman they’re speaking with is a recent immigrant from India and doesn’t know what government benefits he and his wife are eligible for.
Unlike other city-based programs, CAPS doesn’t wait for seniors to come to them. Instead, the organization sends volunteers out into their communities. The idea is to serve as a bridge between formal social services and faith-based cultural communities. This is a big deal in Fremont, where 40 years of major demographic shifts have forced the city to reevaluate how it does things. In 1970, the city was nearly all white. But these days there’s no ethnic majority, almost half the population is foreign-born, and nearly two-thirds of households speak a language other than English.
Studies have shown that immigrant elders have a harder time than their native-born counterparts in accessing benefits and services. “So that's where the gurdwara plays a great role,” says Kashmir Singh, also a CAPS ambassador at Gurdwara Sahib Fremont. “The seniors who cannot actually go to certain places to get help because of [lack of a] ride, or the language, they can come here. They can talk to people with their own language and they feel confident talking to their own community member.”
Asha Chandra, the CAPS program coordinator, says officials didn’t come up with this idea on their own. In 2005, the city conducted a series of focus groups in nine different languages.
“We brought the leaders of each of these ethnic and faith-based organizations together … to a round table,” says Chandra. “We asked them, if we were to come up with a program where we could work with seniors in your own individual communities, what would that model look like?”
Answers varied, but there was an overarching theme: everyone thought services should be available where seniors already congregate. So the city developed CAPS from the bottom up, with cultural and religious organizations as partners. CAPS ambassadors -- regular people, not social workers -- go through a 40-hour training that covers a broad range of services and resources, as well as transportation, nutrition, housing options, legal assistance, and the ins and outs of governments benefits.
But having the right information is only the first step. The critical second step is getting that information to the people who need it -- which means enlisting their neighbors.
The power of neighborly connections
CAPS ambassador Cordelia Shieh and her client, Mrs. Jin, aren’t literally neighbors, but they do cross paths: Shieh’s church is just down the street from Jin’s subsidized senior apartment complex in Fremont.
The two are meeting in a common room at the apartment complex to discuss getting Jin, who’s 64, enrolled in health care through the Affordable Care Act. Jin moved to the US from Shanghai in 2008, but never got health insurance. She says it’s a great relief to know she’s eligible now, since for years she lived with constant anxiety about her health.
“Frankly, I’m not ashamed to tell you, I’m always worried, always being careful because I can’t afford to get sick,” Jin says in Mandarin. “I say to myself, I’m going to try my best not to be sick, and that’s all I can do.”
Shieh is also trying to get Jin enrolled in CalFresh, or the food stamp program, through a phone interview. Jin has taken English classes before -- she’s already passed her citizenship test -- but she still doesn’t feel fully confident, especially about making phone calls. So Shieh pulls out her cellphone and puts it on speakerphone, so they can go through the call together.
Shieh has been working with Mrs. Jin for about a year now, helping to explain senior housing applications and arranging health insurance for Jin’s husband, who has complications following a stroke. But the advice and help flow both ways, as Jin presses Shieh to drink the bottle of water she’s brought for her.
“He shui! Drink more water! It’s good for you! Good for your skin. I drink a lot of water at home,” she admonishes Shieh with a smile.
“There's the formal system of medical care, or the hospitals. But it's really that informal system: the neighbors, who you connect with, who you go to,” says CAPS administrator Karen Grimsich. She says the program is purposely non-bureaucratic; the point is to take it down to a person-to-person level, building on relationships or connections that already exist.
“I think what's really gotten me very excited is how the community can be the solution,” she says. “And how we often don't phrase social services in that way.”
The CAPS program now has over 60 active ambassadors, with more joining every year. After the initial training, ambassadors continue to meet periodically to learn about additional resources, support each others’ issues, and also get to know each other better. Karen Grimsich says it’s a wonderfully unexpected benefit that the program connects the ambassadors themselves on a personal level. CAPS has created bridges across ethnic communities as well as within them.
“I mean, isn’t that the wish we have in our world?” she asks. “That there's respect and understanding, and room for all different people and cultures?”
This story was produced through a fellowship from New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, supported by AARP.