SFU alumnus’ nonprofit brings meals to 600 self-isolated seniors in the Downtown Eastside
As she boarded a plane bound for Hawaii on March 13, a sudden realization caused Jenny Konkin’s stomach to sink. Her air host had just informed her that she would have to quarantine for 14 days upon returning. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to get off the plane. I work with seniors and I can’t do that,” she told him.
Konkin is the president and co-founder of the Whole Way House Society, which works in partnership with BC Housing to provide community-building programs and tenant support services to vulnerable seniors and veterans living at the Veterans Manor in Vancouver.
“Our entire purpose is to build healthy community and help people out of isolation,” Konkin explains. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she knew that everything was going to have to change. Since the seniors’ safety was her No. 1 priority, she was forced to stop all community programs to encourage people to self-isolate.
“We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” Konkin explains, reflecting on the difficulty of the seniors’ situation. “My ‘boat’ is equipped with the internet and a car and a phone and a Costco card, so I can self-isolate much easier than someone who doesn’t have those resources available to them.”
One morning, Konkin woke suddenly with the thought, “We need to get them food.” Most of the residents relied on a neighbouring cafeteria, which was no longer a safe place for them to be. She envisioned a door-to-door meal-delivery program, and reached out to The Dirty Apron and Kitchen Table Group—local Vancouver businesses with which she was already partnered—to provide quality meals. She then reached out to BC Housing for funding and was approved within 15 minutes.
The next step was to learn safety protocols—how to properly handle food, deal with dirty trays and ensure those germs wouldn’t be passed to the next person. However, the greatest challenge was not safe food practice, but educating seniors on why they should self-isolate.
“You have so much information coming at you, you don’t actually know what’s true,” Konkin explains. Many seniors were hearing different rumours. When told to self-isolate, one common response was, “They’re trying to get rid of us.” Others were worried that their freedom would be taken from them if they accepted Whole Way House’s meals. Despite this skepticism, it took Konkin and her team only a couple of days to get almost every person signed up. “It’s because we had already built relationships with those residents, so we were able to explain to them and help them understand. They knew we were doing this because we cared about and loved them.”
Having established the meal program at Veterans Manor, Konkin reached out to the CEOs of other seniors’ buildings in the area who she knew didn’t have any meal support. In one month, Whole Way House went from serving 85 residents to more than 600. “It was shocking but so encouraging to see what you can do when you have to.”
Konkin’s team grew to 11 staff, from four, driving around the city and doing more than just dropping off meals. “We chat, we ask how you're doing, we practise smiling with our eyes since our mouths are covered by our masks.”
One woman was confused as to why they were at her door. “She didn’t speak any English so she wasn’t sure what we were offering,” Konkin recalls. “We brought her a meal and her eyes welled up with tears—she kept following us down the hallway and just kept repeating ‘Thank you, thank you.’”
Despite these successes, Konkin knows there’s still a long way to go to help the seniors of the Downtown Eastside. “Our senior population is at a very critical time even before COVID… The opportunities we have today are because somebody worked really hard to help build our economy, but now those people are left by the wayside. I hope that something we can take away from this pandemic is that seniors deserve our support and our care. They are a very quiet voice and it's up to us to speak on their behalf and get them support.”