If Steve Zollos, CEO of Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, sees a need, he’s going to try his best to address it.
When he was in college studying for his master’s degree, he made a decision to visit Crete, an island in Greece, to learn about where his grandfather was from and to meet some of his great aunts and uncles—including one great uncle who was 86 and living in a stone house with no electricity or running water. “He was a little different,” Steve chuckles. “To get around, he used a donkey instead of a car. A village of about 70 people was his social network.”
Steve immediately became concerned with meeting his relative’s needs. He wanted to ensure that his great uncle’s home was adequate and that he had the ability to get where he needed to go. “I told him as soon as I graduate, which was about four months later, I’ll come back and I will help you.” Upon graduation, Steve did just that. He moved to Crete and lived with his great uncle in the next year, helping him with his health and connectivity. This, which Steve describes as his first “official senior duties,” launched his path forward.
Three years ago, he joined Senior Services and has been the organization’s CEO since 2018. “We are the place seniors call when they’re in need,” he says. “It could be for food or medical assistance or to keep their lights on.”
During regular operations, Senior Services provided direct support to over 10,000 seniors in a year. Within a 2,000-square-mile service area, their organization gives assistance through various programs that address needs in transportation, healthcare and wellness and advance care planning as well as companion programs to keep seniors engaged and connected.
Food assistance is also a large component of the organization. Last year alone, Senior Services had made over 100,000 Meals on Wheels deliveries and provided more than 50,000 meals in congregate settings. Those numbers are growing significantly with the COVID-19 pandemic. “If we stay on track for this year, we will triple what we did last year,” Steve estimates.
Along with needing to feed more individuals during the pandemic, Senior Services had to shift their service model in order to provide food safely. “When we came to the social isolation mandate and we recognized it was no longer safe to bring seniors to the centers for socialization, we shifted our thinking,” Steve explains. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we keep these seniors fed; how can we keep them engaged?’” Their model would have to change from taking seniors to congregate feeding sites to bringing food directly to the seniors. “As we saw the demand rising, we started asking, ‘How do we navigate this thing?’” Steve recalls.
Meanwhile, the Foodbank was seeing an uptick in seniors who needed food assistance but didn’t have the resources or mobility to travel to a distribution site. Leaders of the two organizations began a conversation about getting food directly to seniors in need while maintaining their health and well-being. “We needed additional food but had the resources and ability to deliver,” Steve explains.
What resulted was a full partnership among the Foodbank, the YMCA of South Hampton Roads, Mercy Chefs and Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia. “The collaboration between nonprofits has been phenomenal because we were able to very quickly bring our talents and resources to the table,” Steve says. “With the Foodbank bringing in Mercy Chefs and the YMCAs for pickup and drop-off sites, we got way ahead of the curve on being able to meet the increasing demand for food in the community.”
The drivers who were typically picking seniors up and transporting them to feeding sites are now picking up meals and delivering them where they’re needed. It sounds simple enough, but Steve explains that meal deliveries are not just transactional. “Our drivers build relationships with people they serve,” he notes. Now that the drivers need to avoid face-to-face interactions, they cannot go in seniors’ homes to place the meals directly in their freezer. Instead, they’ll drop the meals off and then make a follow-up call. “We’ll let them know that the meals are there, ask them how they’re doing, ask if they have any other needs that we should to be aware of.” Steve says that for some seniors, this is the only contact they have each day. “Our drivers are more than just dropping something off,” he says. “They are a contact point; they are a friend.”