By Ed Hersh
In 2009, mourning the death of her mother and upset about the care she had received in a nursing home in the last years of her life, Morningside Heights resident and college teacher Irene Zola met with a few friends for coffee at the storied Hungarian Pastry Shop at 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
In the nursing home, she said, “there were so many mistakes in care, the long shifts, the low pay.” Her idea: start a “neighborhood network” of volunteers to help the elderly stay in their homes for as long as possible. They soon set up a table on Broadway and signed up seven people, as she put it, “not professionals, just people who wanted to help.”
In the thirteen years since, that card table on Broadway has grown into LiLY — Lifeforce In Later Years — a nonprofit, neighbor-to-neighbor organization where over 100 volunteers serve more than 250 elderly residents in Morningside Heights and, since 2016, West Harlem. They provide companionship, help with simple chores, such as accompanying them to medical appointments, and sometimes more.
“Sometimes we open an apartment door and see things we’d never seen before, like vermin and hoarding,” Zola says. That’s why the organization also connects seniors with social services, home care, and other resources when needed.
Brian Burke is one of LiLY’s volunteers. About six months ago, an elderly neighbor whom he drove to visit an ailing friend told him about LiLY. “I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for 20 years and never knew it existed,” Burke says. Now, he spends about two hours each week visiting with a Morningside Heights resident in her 70s, who has been blind since birth and needs help with some of life’s necessities.
“I read her emails and mail to her and take her on walks, which is really important,” he told us. He also helps with small household tasks, like upgrading her computer software. “A bond is quickly created through service,” he says. “I have two teenagers and I’m trying to teach them by example, and let them see that they are so fortunate.”
Overseeing the day-to-day operations of LiLY — including matching volunteers with neighbors in need — is Program Director Paula Seefeldt, a social worker and the only other full-time staff member. “It’s really about neighbors helping neighbors,” she says. “We help in three ways: friendly visits, companionship, and helping with practical things, like running errands and picking up prescriptions.”
Seefeldt is a long-time Morningside Heights resident who happens to be married to Jeremy Wladis, the community-minded owner of several popular UWS restaurants (Good Enough to Eat, Harvest Kitchen, Nina’s Burrito Bar, and Big Gay Ice Cream). Like Brian Burke, she started as a volunteer. Later, “they were expanding and felt they needed to hire someone to help,” she says. For Seefeldt, that led to a staff position where she now coordinates the volunteers, social work, and other activities, including partnerships with outside organizations like Riverside Church, picnics and outings, and fund-raising events, including their annual gala. Other part-time paid staffers all started as volunteers as well.
During the pandemic the organization pivoted to virtual visits, providing 75 tablets and Zoom training for the elderly that needed them. With pandemic restrictions easing, in-person group activities are resuming. An in-person or virtual group activity takes place every day. It thrills founder Irene Zola to see seniors and volunteers “in all their diversity,” she says, as she did at a recent picnic at Riverbank Park, where “a table of people speaking different languages [were] sitting and talking together.”
Seniors served by the program and volunteers are referred from a number of places: the Geriatric Clinic at Mount Sinai Morningside; friends; a website at Columbia University with volunteer opportunities; and, often, word of mouth. “We always ask, ‘How did you know about us?’” Seefeldt says. “They often answer, ‘everybody knows about you, you help seniors in the neighborhood.”
LiLY is always looking for volunteers, referrals, and, of course, financial support. (It is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization.) If you’re on the Upper West Side and interested in learning more about LiLY or volunteering, you can email Paula Seefeldt directly: Paula-Seefeldt@LFiLY.org. “All of our volunteers live, work, and study in the neighborhood,” she says. There’s a simple application and vetting process that includes two personal references and proof of vaccination.
Volunteer Brian Burke urges everyone to “take the first step, and meet with Paula. They do all the work; here’s the person, here’s the address “ he says. “Chances are there’s someone out there who needs you.”