NORC Volunteers Step Up

Three women display NORC t-shirts at a table in an apartment building lobby
Neighbors Helping Neighbors volunteers doing outreach pre-COVID

When COVID Changed the Rules, They Became a Key Link

When our West Side NORC was chosen to participate in Older Adults Strengthening Communities—a special initiative of the United Neighborhood Houses of New York—NORC Director Nina Kaminsky saw an opportunity. She decided to design a project to recruit volunteers to help spread the word about the NORC and expand its membership. Little did she know that within a year, those volunteers would play a vital role in providing services to NORC members. 

NORCs, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, offer support so people can remain at home as they age, rather than move into assisted living facilities or nursing homes. The West Side NORC is located in four neighboring affordable housing cooperatives in the West 90s. In addition to helping with essential activities like shopping, filling out forms and getting to the doctor, it provides health care information, classes, social activities and trips. 

The NORC called its volunteer project Neighbors Helping Neighbors. Initially, it did “tabling and one-on-one stuff where members would reach out to their neighbors on the floor” to make them aware of the program, Kaminsky recalled. 

Then COVID hit and the buildings changed their rules. Only residents were allowed in; Kaminsky and her staff were shut out. But the Neighbors Helping Neighbors volunteers lived in the buildings. Suddenly, they became a lifeline. 

“Food deliverers couldn’t go up to the apartments, so the food was being left downstairs. We would give our volunteers the list and they would bring up the food,” Kaminsky said. 

The volunteers also kept an eye on their fellow residents and suggested to Kaminsky when someone seemed like they could use more support. And when elections rolled around in November, the volunteers deployed: “We did a whole voting thing where they helped them fill out the form and get it mailed. A lot of our seniors aren’t mobile so they needed a little extra help.” 

Meanwhile, even though Kaminsky and her staff remain unable to visit the apartments, they’re still supporting NORC members. They call each of the approximately 200 members weekly to check in and keep them updated on important information. In addition, a visiting nurse makes about 30 calls per week to track people’s health. And in May the program began offering online activities.  

“We have five classes a week—two qi gong, two yoga, and one meditation and relaxation,” says Kaminsky. In addition, the Whitney Museum, which used to do art classes at the NORC, is offering virtual tours instead. 

Now, as vaccines become available, Kaminsky feels Neighbors Helping Neighbors may have a role to play in organizing shots for members—a critical step toward a post-COVID reality. 

“It’s been a litle tough,” said Kaminsky about the past several months. “Our clients definitely miss the in-person contact, and so do I! But people have been really appreciative.”