Neighbors Helping Neighbors, an Antidote to Isolation by Sandra Coopersmith

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.”

That John Donne quote could easily apply to condominiums and other multi-unit complexes, and at Raintree, which fronts on Jefferson Blvd. near Duquesne Ave. in Culver City, Neighbors Helping Neighbors (“NHN”) exemplifies the abundant benefits that can arise through proximity.

Raintree, which has three separated boards, is a community of approximately 1,100 residents who occupy 564 housing units and enjoy a variety of amenities in lush surroundings encompassing 25 acres with a one-acre lake that includes a stream, an island, fountains and a waterfall. It was constructed in the 1970s on what used to be MGM’s Backlot #3 and named after “Raintree County,” the 1957 Civil War romance starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Eva Marie Saint, since part of the filming occurred on that site.

Visionaries who ignite remarkable change are assuredly a force to be reckoned with, and certainly a mainstay of fiction and film. Fortunately they exist in real life as well. Two of them, one in a wheelchair (JoAnn Higgins) and one a sight-impaired 90-year-old with a host of medical issues (Leah Pincus, who passed away this year at 94), sparked the creation of NHN which has evolved into a vibrant legacy of connection for their community.

This was reflected in the number of contacts listed in a recent NHN newsletter: Lorraine Allman (Chairperson, Speakers and Events, Movie Group Coordinator and Newsletter Writer), Allan Anderman (Co-Chairperson, Treasurer and Current Events Discussion Leader), Mary Dolcemaschio (Vice-Chairperson), Anita Jaskol (Secretary), JoAnn Higgins (Co-Founder and Friendly Telephone Network), Ruth Botzer (Volunteer Coordinator), Ian Cousineau (CERT and the Rock N’ Rollers Coordinator), Ada Enzen (Newsletter Distribution), Kathryn Heymann (Book Club, Hospitality and Distribution List), Judy Hochman (Book Club Coordinator) and Miriam Schnepp (Hospitality, Welcoming and Information).

Allman said the impetus for the creation of NHN “arose from an article in the LA Times in March 2008 about a program at Park La Brea Towers that provided assistance and activities to the very large senior population living there. This program was inspired by similar programs called ‘Aging-in-Place,’ largely located in senior communities along the east coast.”

The power of the press was not lost on Higgins, who found the concept captivating.

“When the article caught my attention I thought, wouldn’t this be an enhancement for our community!” she recalled. “I mentioned this to Leslie Brandes, at that time the Social Worker at the Culver City Senior Center. She said, ‘Do you know Leah Pincus?’ Leah had also brought this to her attention. Leslie encouraged us to get together and consider the Raintree community. So, Leah and I approached the Raintree boards requesting a community meeting to see if there was interest.”

They received an affirmative response from the boards, with the understanding that this would not be an official Raintree activity but a totally volunteer one. “We put together a flyer inviting each of the 354 condos and 210 town homes to a meeting featuring a social worker and a resident of Park La Brea, Leah’s lifelong friend, to learn about Aging-In-Place,” Higgins added.

Jaskol, who was serving as a board member in 2008 when Higgins and Pincus requested permission to circulate questionnaires to residents in hopes of establishing the community group that later morphed into NHN, has fond memories of Pincus, describing her as “the guiding force behind the process. She established a board which met in her home to create the agenda preceding each Steering Committee meeting. She led with a gentle, persistent and intelligent style. I miss her very much.” That sentiment is shared by many.

Twenty people showed up for the initial May 19, 2008 meting, from which a core group was formed. One of their first actions was to compile an anonymous survey that included demographics and interests, to which 173 of the Raintree households responded as of July 12, 2008.

Anderman took on the exhaustive task of tabulating those responses to assess community needs and inclinations. He learned that approximately 2/3 of the responders lived alone. Almost all were interested in having a Raintree mutual help network and substantial interest was shown in a “staying in touch” network, a referral service, senior peer support group, planned social activities and educational events about social issues.

“We did a second survey to get names and addresses of interested neighbors and refine specific interests,” Allman said. “The Steering Committee met to discuss all this. Leah Pincus was elected Chairperson, I became Co-Chairperson, Anita Jaskol became Secretary and Allan Anderman became Treasurer. Then we had people volunteer to chair various activities. We started the newsletter which was written by me and distributed to residents who had indicated interest.”

They continued to research the model of Aging-in-Place as it existed in other communities, but found it was somewhat complex involving grant applications, high membership dues and the hiring of a social worker to coordinate the program.

“This seemed impractical for Raintree, as we are not a retirement community, many services are available at the Culver City Senior Center, and our CC&Rs forbid fundraising on the property,” Allman said, “so, after a few months we decided to focus on helping Raintree people meet each other through social activities. We believed that if we provided the structure through which residents could meet each other, social networks and friendships would naturally occur. If help is needed, friends tend to help. We changed our name from the Raintree Aging-in-Place Network to Neighbors Helping Neighbors to open the organization to all ages, not just us seniors. And our idea is working. There have been many instances of people helping each other. Friendships have formed in the community. People who were isolated now have reason to join together and have fun.”

Allman described the structure of NHN as “tight organization at the top, with a Steering Committee and a monthly meeting at 10 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month. Steering meetings are well attended by the most active people in the organization. We have officers and minutes are taken. Most of the coordinators of the various groups also attend. We average 10 – 15 people at the steering meetings, and meetings are open to all interested residents. Steering meetings are structured with announcements, then reading of the agenda followed by minutes and the Treasurer’s report. We then have a report from the coordinators of various groups (books, movies, current events, etc.). We then move into new business, then old business. We discuss upcoming big events and do planning. Decisions are made by consensus of 50% plus one, but we usually talk until we have 100% agreement on what to do about an issue. We do not have any written rules and operate by tradition from the way Leah set it up.”

Allman stated that although there is a tight structure at the top, “everything else is very informal. It’s as if we are providing scaffolding upon which the organization can take its own form. We have no ‘members.’ We have participants, anyone who is interested and shows up.”

Although NHN has no dues, the group has received unsolicited donations, often memorial in nature, and maintains a voluntary donation basket in the welcoming area at the bimonthly events, usually taking in thirty to forty dollars. This defrays costs of refreshments and printing the newsletter.

“We had a generous bequest at the beginning,” Allman said. “We used about $400 to purchase a sound system for our events plus a couple of coffee pots and serving dishes. Our expenses are minimal and we stay pretty even with the donation basket. We do six newsletters a year and six events at which all speakers volunteer to appear and are not paid. Some speakers are residents and some are from outside. We are very good at conserving what money has come in, and we do not spend a dime without Steering Committee consensus.”

Allman emphasized that “although NHN is not sponsored by the boards we have their permission to have our social organization at Raintree and everyone in Raintree is invited to participate in what we do. All of our activities are staffed with volunteers and there are no charges or fees for anything we do. Our activities and schedules are made known via a bimonthly newsletter, colorful posters and word of mouth. We have at least two people as greeters at the reception desk at our events. We provide name tags and a warm welcome, and recognize and welcome first-time attendees. Over our four years many wonderful things have happened, and we have had lots of fun.”

Several residents voiced the impact NHN has had upon them.

Jaskol credits NHN with having changed her life. “Because of the book club I have established close friendships with incredible women, whom I would not have otherwise met,” she said, adding that “one of our presentations was by a resident, Cali Rose, a musician and performer, who announced beginning ukulele classes at the senior center. That was two years ago, and I am still strumming – the best antidepressant ever!”

Schnepp read the following free verse which she had created to express her feelings about NHN: Life is too hard to walk alone/ It’s nice to have someone by your side/ Our organization, formed four years ago/ Has given this support to the residents of Raintree/ Newcomers are immediately embraced and welcomed/ Activities are all-inclusive and varied/ To many it has almost been a lifeline/ And what a joy it has turned out to be/ To be able to envelop our neighbors/ In the warmth of entertainment and friendship.

Anderman shared that “participating in our Raintree NHN activity has been enormously nourishing and helpful to me. For one thing, I now know many more of my neighbors and have been greatly nourished by their friendship, companionship and caring. I have in mind the long sad journey that lasted for many years and finally ended February 12 when my beloved wife Gail was taken by the dreadful disease known as Alzheimer’s. I was so deeply touched that when I brought Gail to meetings or took her out for a walk everyone said ‘hello’ to her directly by name and thereby acknowledged her presence and continued existence as a lovely person. This ongoing affirmation of her life was, I believe, significant nourishment for her and certainly was for me.”

Following his wife’s death Anderman experienced “an outflow of condolences and caring that suffused my existence here at Raintree. Every morning when I opened the door to pick up my newspaper I never ceased to be surprised and touched by the many new condolence cards that lay on my threshold. What a truly caring community of neighbors we have created for ourselves here at Raintree. Friends who live elsewhere comment with astonishment that everyone here says ‘hello’ to each other and is genuinely caring. We are truly blessed to live at Raintree.”

Hochman, who has experienced the challenge of being caregiver to her disabled husband, has also found Raintree to be a very supportive environment. “What an amazing sense of community,” she said. “We really know each other here.”

Janet Rohrbacher, a relative newcomer, is an ardent cheerleader for NHN and brought it to the writer’s attention. She cited three instances when neighbors came to her aid.

“Recently Security called and said a concerned neighbor told them a car was parking in my space,” she said. “I don’t have a car, so for the past three years that space has been empty.” Turns out there was a legitimate reason as she had started renting her inside space to a man with medical problems who had been parking in an outside space and no longer wished to deal with the hassle of putting on and removing his car’s dust cover. But Rohrbacher is grateful that the neighbor noticed something out of the norm and acted on that concern.

Then there was the time she left her cell phone in a taxi and a neighbor extended herself in helping to facilitate its return. Yet another neighbor came to her aid on a different occasion involving problems with the phone company by allowing her to use her phone for close to an hour and, in an attempt to resolve the matter, even intervened by talking to the phone company on her behalf.

Rohrbacher is a mainstay at the NHN functions. Brimming with enthusiasm, she expressed her delight that “I can attend exciting groups and I don’t have to take a taxi. Wow! I can just walk there!”

Indeed, the array of activities and events presented through NHN is tantamount to taking a very well managed cruise with an excellent activities director, just minus the ocean. Although there is that beautiful lake . . .

Allman offered a tantalizing sampling of the events, recalling that “one of the most popular programs was the digital photography lecture by Joe Bevans of Samy’s Camera. And Julie Lugo Cerra, Culver City’s historian, came and spoke about MGM Backlot #3 and absolutely entranced us with stories about its history. We are fortunate to have her with us again on August 28 to speak about her new book on the movie studios of Culver City.”

The presentation by Elaine Fischel, who was in her 90s, was described by Allman as “an awesome event. Fischel worked in Tokyo from 1946 – 48 alongside American attorneys assigned to defend 28 Japanese war criminals. After returning home she became an attorney. At age 90 she published a book based on her participation in this unique facet of history.”

Smiling broadly, Allman recounted that “earlier this year we had Million Dollar Milt (Milton Smith), a disk jockey, singer and radio personality from KJLH (FM 102.3), who came with performer K. J. Dwayne, a DJ system and speakers, and those guys rocked! We even had people with walkers ‘dancing’ as well as people who weren’t very mobile bobbing in their chairs. They raised the roof on our clubhouse!”

Indicating that the interests of youngsters are also taken into account, Allman added that “Ilene Cohen will be presenting a puppet show for kids of all ages as a morning program on a weekend in November.”

Fittingly, the closing comment comes from Higgins who not only co-founded this vital group but continues to provide an essential service by coordinating its Friendly Telephone Network. She offered this succinct summation: “According to longtime resident Dorothy Lider, ‘once one moves into Raintree, one does not want to leave.’” And it is apparent that NHN plays a significant role in enabling many to stay on in an enhanced environment enriched by caring and camaraderie.

(Those interested in forming similar groups and wishing more information may email Allman at lala25@me.com.)

www.culvercitysymphony.org

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