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Meet Deborah Martin of ElderHelp of San Diego

Today we’d like to introduce you to Deborah Martin.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Deborah. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
During the 1950’s and 60’s seniors in San Diego and throughout the country had very few places to turn when they could no longer care for themselves independently. Many had only two options, some had only one. If you had a family, you might rely on them for emotional, physical or financial support. If you didn’t, it was time to go to a nursing home.

In the early 1970’s, fewer than 10 organizations were serving seniors in San Diego County. Most operated federally funded meal programs in churches, recreation centers or schools. Fearing that stomachs were being fed but not souls or spirits, a group of inner-city ministers and business leaders convinced the San Diego State University School of Social Work to conduct a needs assessment among elderly living in Mid City. They learned that these neighborhoods contained one of the highest concentrations of low-income seniors living in the county. To respond to the needs of seniors in failing health, poverty and isolation, a small group gathered in 1973 to organize a community-based agency named Mid City Senior Enterprises, which eventually became ElderHelp of San Diego in 1990.

Working from the basement of a church for the next 12 years, over two dozen programs were offered in response to a growing community need. The organization strove to address the widest range of needs imaginable—food, shelter, companionship, poverty—at the most practical level available. Thousands of seniors found advice and support, but most of all, ElderHelp developed a reputation as the place to turn for help. Today, we average more than 7,000 clients and calls per year and our work is more relevant and necessary than ever.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Running a nonprofit is never a smooth road! There are always struggles finding funding for what we do (aging services are rarely high on donor giving priorities), and the stories we hear from our clients on a daily basis can affect us all deeply. We’ve been fortunate to have a sustainable 45-year run which has allowed us to successfully assist more than 215,000 seniors and their families. One of our biggest challenges was six years ago when we unexpectedly lost key funding and had to reduce the size of our team. Between attrition and medical leaves we got down to 7 staff and were really struggling to make payroll and deliver services.

Fortunately, our deep roots in the community, our transparency and honesty, dedicated donors who believed in us and our Mission, and the sound fiscal controls we implemented when I came to ElderHelp got us through that trying time. Today we have a full-time staff of 18 and we’ve operated “profitably” ever since. But there is much work ahead of us as the 60 and 65+ population is expected to grow 130% between 2000 and 2030 – the equivalent of more than 900,000 seniors or 25% of our total population – and more than half of them could face economic hardship staying in their homes. We need better, more affordable and more dignified ways to age in our homes and communities.

ElderHelp offers up many terrific, affordable and innovative solutions, but it’s hard to get the healthcare industry and insurance to reimburse us even though we save them hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. We are not daunted though. We believe strongly in what we do and we are here to stay.

Please tell us about ElderHelp of San Diego.
ElderHelp is one of the only nonprofit agencies that is solely focused on providing affordable services and programs to seniors within their own homes. ElderHelp continues to provide an array of programs that include case management and home support services through our Care Coordination program, live-in matching services through the HomeShare program, and transportation services through our Seniors A Go Go Program.

We also provide personal, daily check-in calls to isolated seniors based in their homes, and we provide tools, resources and support to family caregivers through our Employed Family Caregiver support program. In addition, ElderHelp also provides tax assistance, legal help, benefits counseling and information and assistance. What we are known for and what sets us apart is our dedicated, personalized approach, as well as our determination and flexibility in finding workable solutions to challenges when possible.

We make it our business to know about aging and aging options in San Diego County and beyond. We are proud of so many things, but what stands out most recently is Senator Pro Tem Toni Atkins naming us California Nonprofit of the Year for the 39th District. She not only believes strongly in our Mission and the need for our programs, but she believes we are a small nonprofit who makes a huge impact. It was an immensely gratifying honor to spend the day in the state Capital receiving acknowledgment for the work we’ve done. As a smaller nonprofit, we’re not used to having our work recognized and it was rewarding to see that it is.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Just about anything with my Mom is going to be a wonderful memory. She was a fun-loving, playful, Mom with a great sense of humor. We laughed most all the time and I loved her storytelling. We lost her almost three years ago, but she has definitely inspired my work at ElderHelp and would be so proud of the career I’ve chosen and the work we do.

The best parts of my childhood were spent living on a boat in Catalina Island most of the summer. We woke up every morning, would jump in the cold water to swim our long-haired dachshund “Tiger” to the beach or water ski, then warm up over a yummy breakfast, and spend the day outside or in the water enjoying the beauty of the islands. There was always something to do and being responsible for the maintenance and upkeep on the boat gave me an early sense of duty and responsibility as a youth.

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