An elderly woman was living with her gravely ill husband in Concord on $400 a month. Her landlord could no longer do without her $300 monthly rent. With no car or resources and unable to speak English, she turned to her priest, who sent Jane (not her real name) to Vicky Lizarraga.
More than solving Jane's urgent problem, Lizarraga developed Jane's trust, established a long-term relationship and drew her into the community-based matrix of people and organizations that is the safety net for residents of the Monument Corridor area and beyond.
"There are lots of organizations and outreach programs, but no follow-up," said Solomon Belette of Catholic Charities of the East Bay. "The paradigm is different. Vicky meets individual's needs to improve their sense of hope, as well as the quality of their lives."
"It's about a sense of the dignity of the individual," Lizarraga said.
She found housing for the couple and then hospice care for Jane's husband until he died last year. Her grief at the loss of her husband multiplied when her income dropped to $200 a month.
"It was very difficult when my husband died," Jane said through a translator.
With Lizarraga's guidance, Jane found senior housing priced at 30 percent of her income, food assistance, health care, friends, useful volunteer work, occasional part-time employment and hope for the future.
"It's about empowerment and transformation, and finding ways to multiply that," she
What some might call magic, Lizarraga has done during a two-year period by bringing to bear her personal experience as a Bolivian immigrant, studies for a degree in political science and a master's degree in multicultural studies at the Franciscan School of Religion in Berkeley, and 10 previous years of work on food stamp outreach and housing advocacy.
Lizarraga lives in the Monument area, where she may encounter her "brothers and sisters" on any given day. Working for Catholic Charities' Senior Outreach, her nonstop schedule is packed with personal appointments, organizing events, social programs, classes on nutrition or depression, presentations to benefactors and countless spontaneous translations.
"This is not about me," Lizarraga said. "I am a servant. It is a ministry about the community."
The catalyst for her work was a 2007 CCEB survey report showing that there were almost 3,900 people over the age of 65 (18 percent of the population) in the area. Seventy percent were low-income, and their numbers are increasing more rapidly than the general population. At that time, 10 percent of seniors identified themselves a Hispanic or Latino, and many were monolingual.
Their biggest challenge was economic concerns, but the survey also revealed a widespread sense of isolation, inactivity and emotional distress related to personal losses, health, social dislocation and a lack of information.
Funding for the CCEB outreach program was first provided by a trust by former Realtor Mary Mahoney and designated for that purpose. John Muir Health now supports the program.
Lizarraga said, "Seniors need to have fun and a sense of family."
She is working to strengthen the Friendly Visitor program, where volunteer neighbors make in-person visits, phone calls, provide transportation, do shopping, help with laundry or light housekeeping, meal preparation or just read the news in Spanish.
"Some people get impatient with seniors because they might seem slow," Lizarraga said. "I tell them to put two bags of sand on your legs and walk around. It is not easy for seniors."
Introducing Hilda Grimenez-Paglia as "the boss of the seniors," Lizarraga emphasized the importance of personal, local action, offering Grimenez-Paglia as an example.
Before working in the Friendly Visitor program, Grimenez-Paglia was teaching English to day laborers and feeding them breakfast on her own at her Virginia Lane home.
The free Cinco de Mayo/90th Birthday Party at the Concord Senior Center is one of the multitude of ways that Lizarraga helps seniors build relationships and find ways to give back to the community.
Friendly Visitor volunteers Maria Renderos and Gladys Gaillour were busy in the kitchen at the party, and groups of guests posed for pictures with Mayor Ron Leone.
"It's great. They range from 90 to 106 (years of age)," Leone said. "It is important that we do these types of events for seniors all over the city. I think that they may feel underappreciated."
Avis Connolly, Concord senior program manager said the city offers many classes, activities and educational opportunities for seniors, and added that celebrations are an opportunity to enrich local senior connections.
"Vicky has been very instrumental in working with us. We have a larger population of over-70 seniors and we are trying to attract the younger seniors," Connolly said.
Although the Cinco de Mayo entertainment centered on Mexican heritage, Lizarraga said that immigrants she finds in Concord are from Argentina, El Salvador, Peru, Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile and Bolivia -- her own native country -- as well as from Mexico.
"Some people think I am Mexican. I take that as a compliment because it shows how much I have learned about the Mexican culture and people," she said. "I could not do what I do without the support of the community."