Tania Collazo & JASA: “We need you”

What gives me hope is that historically, times of great turmoil have led to new and better ways of living and being. My hope is that this cracking of our bedrock will bring about a new way of existing that is guided by making life better for all people. I hope that this time of […]

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What gives me hope is that historically, times of great turmoil have led to new and better ways of living and being. My hope is that this cracking of our bedrock will bring about a new way of existing that is guided by making life better for all people. I hope that this time of being physically distanced from those that we love will be an impetus for us to be more connected in a different way in the future, for us to be more filled with gratitude and more present for one another.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tania Collazo.

Tania, the Director of JASA’s Home-Delivered Meals Program in Queens, is on the front lines of providing life-sustaining services to one of the populations most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic — older adults. A deeply dedicated individual, Tania has put aside personal and family health risks and needs to continue to serve the hundreds of clients who rely on her and her team for meals and critical social connections during this time. 65–70% of her JASA home-delivered meals clients live alone, and Tania and her team go above and beyond their responsibility to provide meals. They perform socially distant wellness checks on their homebound clients, ensuring that they appear to be in good health and that their surroundings are safe. A meal deliverer may be the only person a homebound individual sees on a daily basis in normal circumstances, and the emotional connection Tania and her team have fostered with their clients over many years is now more important than ever. Despite the challenges in continuing her work during this time, Tania has stated that she “will deliver every single meal to seniors in need” if she has to.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in Marine Park, Brooklyn. I am an only child to a single mother who worked for The New York Times as an editor. Current events and global perspectives helped shape much of my childhood conversations. My mother has a strong sense of social justice and deeply values education. She instilled in me the importance of advocating for people’s rights and not staying quiet in the presence of injustice.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One book in particular that made a significant impact on me was Bearing the Unbearable, a book of poetry created by people inside the concentration camps and ghettos during the Holocaust. It was compiled by my literature professor, the brilliant, late Dr. Freda Aaron. I had taken Holocaust studies classes before I read this book, but I did not truly understand the human toll and devastation it generated until I read the words expressed so poignantly by the poets in this book.

Although Dr. Aaron was teaching a retrospective of Dante’s inferno, she generously made time to meet with me after class to discuss her experiences and her book. She was and still is one of the most amazing humans that I have ever met. What she captured in this book is something that pictures of the aftermath of the Holocaust do not necessarily express — it is the emotion of that one single moment that the word holds. She captured what could not be taken from each of these humans — their love and their voices. This book and the vision that it provided me with has been a guide on the importance of being present, the power of the word, and the moral imperative to share our lived histories over and over again.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Its likely sounds cliché, but one of my favorite quotes is Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in this world.” This is the quote that stares back at me every time I open the laptop that I am typing on right now. For me, it serves as both a reminder and a challenge. I find it to be a simple and empowering call to action because it tells us that whatever the situation, it can be improved. And the way that it can be improved is by our own actions. If you’d like to live in a more caring world, this quote is a directive to care more.

Happiness and peace are within us. We are constantly watering seeds of love or fear, and it is our choice how to proceed, and what we decide to focus on. If we sit and meditate or pray or think about what kind of world we would like to have, we can create that in our lives and in our world. We are speaking, choosing, and behaving in a way that sets the bricks and mortar for our life. If we want peace, we must be peaceful, and through our actions alone, we have taken a step to a more peaceful world. It is a simple quote, but it is the root of how we can change the world for the better every day, one choice, and one action at a time.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

JASA is one of the largest, most trusted, and innovative agencies serving older adults in New York City, providing critical services to over 40,000 people annually. We aim to promote aging with a purpose through providing the tools and programming needed for older adults to live with autonomy and thrive in their homes. JASA provides 940,000 meals per year, in addition to other life changing services, including affordable housing, free legal services, health, and mental health services, home-delivered meals, social programming at senior centers, and community training sessions on preventing elder abuse, peer health support, caregiver assistance, and more. I am the Director of JASA’s Queens home-delivered meals program, where we provide seven meals a week plus snacks and shelf-stable pantry items to older adults in our community.

Our services have not stopped due to the pandemic, and in fact, we have seen an influx of new clients that need our meal services. Our team has worked diligently to ensure the critical needs of our clients are continuing to be met, while at the same time ensuring the safety of our staff. We are cognizant that our clients may feel more isolated than most people during this time, as their previous caretakers may not be able to be there for them. Knowing this, we have trained our delivery personnel to not only provide meals to our clients but to perform wellness checks, ensuring they appear to be in good health and that their surroundings are safe. We also regularly call our clients to check in with them and have conversations around their specific needs.

This can be as simple as someone needing batteries in a fire alarm, or someone just needing to talk and have a point of contact in the midst of such isolation. We remain focused on our clients’ meal quality and delivery, but we have shifted to additionally maintain a more personal connection with them, making sure our clients are in good spirits, offering them someone to talk to and being able to get them any additional help that they may need.Through these regular check-ins and conversations, we hope we can provide a sense of normalcy and comfort for our clients in this difficult time.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I believe a hero is someone who steps outside of their own needs and comfort levels, and potentially outside of their zone of safety, to help lift another person up and to be of service to that person. A hero does all of this without looking for a reward, but rather, with the understanding that the reward is in the action of serving another.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

There are many heroes in this world, and we see them and their incredible stories every day. People like Malala Yousafzai who faced the most violent darkness that humans are capable of, and yet found the strength to transform that nightmare into a call for change that inspires millions all over the world. Or someone like President Jimmy Carter, who at 95-years-old still gets up every day to build homes for people in need. Since most of us know about these extraordinary lives, I’m interested in discussing the everyday heroes in our lives.

In my opinion, the 5 characteristics of a hero are :

  1. They have a love and care for humanity that supersedes their own needs or safety.
  2. They are willing to lift others up without personal reward.
  3. They are selfless. They see themselves as helpers and look for places to serve others.
  4. They inspire by living a life of truth and honor.
  5. They give to others in both large and small ways without letting anyone know.

At the onset of this pandemic, I was concerned with how our home-delivered meal drivers would react to having to go out and deliver meals in one of the most heavily hit COVID-19 areas in New York City. Despite my concerns, not one of my drivers complained to me about having to deliver meals. Instead, I was met with questions and concerns for the clients they served. Questions like, “how will we deliver safely to mitigate spreading anything to the vulnerable population we serve?” Some of the most incredible everyday heroes are JASA’s meal delivery drivers who, despite facing personal risk, as well as a potential risk to their families, persevered in delivering meals to all of our clients multiple times a week. These are the people that encompass the 5 characteristics of a hero.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I think love is at the core of most people, and love is an emotion that supersedes the difficult and the scary. I think that when we are able to tap into the love that connects us all, it’s easy to make the choice to be there for others.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

To provide some background, JASA was founded 50+ years ago to serve the needs of older adults in New York City, and it is a leading expert and innovator in aging services. JASA recognizes the diversity among the aging population and honors older adults as vital members of society. Nine years ago, when I started working with JASA, I was propelled to do so because of this mission.

When the vast majority of businesses and organizations shut their doors in mid-March, our services became more vital than ever. We serve a population that is especially vulnerable, and the issues they face had become severely compounded. JASA’s team banded together as an organization to make sure that the older adults we serve were continuing to be taken care of and that their needs were met. We understood that we acted as a bridge between our clients and the family members that could not reach them. Our actions seem heroic in times like these, but our every day, every minute funding, before this pandemic, has been to serve and care for older adults in our community. This focus does not waver during times of trial — our resolve only gets stronger.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

My heroes are caught in a web of the grand and the simple moments. My daughter is my hero — she reminds me daily of the love that connects us all. She sees the world through love’s lens and her actions are guided by that. Just yesterday, she told me I was wrong for killing a mosquito. When I explained that it was biting me she replied, “but Mommy, it needs to eat too.” The care for other sentient beings is something that does not have to be taught; it is in most of us to feel deep empathy with those that we share this world with, and with this knowledge, it informs moments of heroism like my daughter’s.

On the grand scale, a hero is a frontline worker that puts themselves and their families at risk by showing up to work every day to nurse people back to health. My best friend is a nurse and she has risked her life during this pandemic, without any hesitation or reservation. On a smaller scale, but nonetheless heroic, a hero is a single parent, who works during the pandemic or potentially is out of work, and nonetheless figures out how to engage with their child’s remote learning, not letting their fears for the future affect the well-being of their children.

A hero overall is the person that reminds us all to be kind; they are the person who smiles at you on the street, the person in a car that lets you cut them in line on a busy street, the neighbor that brings your garbage pails over to the curb, the person that returns their shopping cart to the right area. Heroes are found in the ordinary, and in the everyday people, who despite their own struggles, come to each day with kindness; heroes are the people that meet the most extraordinary circumstances with strength and courage, showing the very best that humanity has to offer.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

Like most people, I am worried about the health of my family, my parents, my in-laws, my friends. What frightens me the most, however, is the divide that seems to be rampant in our country and the overall way that we have handled this pandemic.

A global pandemic — for all of its horrors — could have provided the most powerfully shared experience and brought together the billions across the globe who are facing this crisis. Instead, we haven’t found the strength to unite in this country around a shared set of facts as basic as, “epidemiologists understand contagious viruses.” To see science — and scientists themselves — under attack while they put their experience and expertise into action to help us — this is what frightened me most.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain why?

What gives me hope is that historically, times of great turmoil have led to new and better ways of living and being. My hope is that this cracking of our bedrock will bring about a new way of existing that is guided by making life better for all people. I hope that this time of being physically distanced from those that we love will be an impetus for us to be more connected in a different way in the future, for us to be more filled with gratitude and more present for one another.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

There has been so much inspiration threaded through these difficult times. I have witnessed from my coworkers’ moments of selfless compassion that provoked tears and gratitude by those that we serve. Seeing my coworkers, friends, neighbors rise to the call of a purpose greater than their own safety has been inspiring.

What I find the most disappointing is when people choose not to empathize with others. We are all one human race, and what affects one affects us all. We should be actively searching and fighting for peace and harmony for all people; if anyone is struggling, or is not in peace, or feels fear, we all can be part of the efforts to make this better for them. To turn away from it, or to remain indifferent, is to be part of the problem.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

This crisis has helped me to synthesize what is important to focus on and to see what is part of an antiquated structure that doesn’t seem to suit our lives now.

Here in New York City, many people were working a rigid schedule, having to fight traffic and fit work into constrained time slots, sacrificing family time, amongst other things. I believe that this pandemic has forced us to reconsider that paradigm. I think that a silver lining of the pandemic is that it has shown us how we can accomplish work successfully, and communicate in a new format.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

I hope we have all come to see that as a society, we are all only as secure as our most vulnerable members. It is my hope that priorities are shifted to reflect the realization that without our health, none of the other things that we spend time accumulating mean anything. A virus doesn’t care what kind of car you drive or what your political affiliation might be. If we don’t see something as basic as healthcare as a human right we are missing an important lesson that this pandemic is shining a light on.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “No one is free until all are free”. In a time when we are one uncovered sneeze away from risk, a corollary might be that no one is healthy until all have access to healthcare. My hope is that this moves us into a moment where when an American gets sick, they will be able to have affordable care, they will not have to choose between purchasing groceries versus purchasing treatment, or obtaining a life-saving procedure versus making their mortgage installment.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We need you. We need your heart, your compassion, and your passion. The only way to fight injustice and inequity is to find what you feel passionate about and help. Carve out your area in this world and dig to find the light. Do so knowing that everything that makes you uniquely you, all of your experiences — good, bad, traumatic, or joy-filled — are integral in your voice that you will use to create change. We need you. Find your passion and help where you can.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

An important movement that could affect the most amount of people, change their health statuses and greatly reduce obesity and disease would be a movement that reconnects people with whole food. This would entail having access to local, seasonal foods as prevalently as we have access to fast food. It would revolutionize fast food restaurants, and allow people to eat delicious, nutritious foods, affordably. The movement would include educating people on the importance of whole foods, as well as teaching them how to cook, shop, and garden.

We are in one of the richest countries in the world, yet many of us are living in virtual food deserts with little access to nutritious foods; instead, we consume toxic processed foods that are riddled with chemicals and preservatives. We have a food system that renders us sick, and further feeds a medical system that is intent on gorging us out of our mortgages and retirement. It is a vicious cycle — but it can be helped if we just go back to the basics and reconnect with food in this way.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

One of the most influential women of our time, and by far the most distinguished first lady in American history, whose name is spoken often in my house as a person who has overcome adversity with grace and who has influenced us to aspire to be our highest selves, is Michelle Obama. Mrs. Obama has shown through her “Let’s Move!” campaign that she understands that the future of our country is predicated on having healthy children. While in the White House, she worked tirelessly to reduce childhood obesity by teaching healthy eating, gardening, and the importance of the activity. This is just one of her many accomplishments that sets her apart as one of the most important women of our time, and someone that I could only dream of breaking bread with one day.

How can our readers follow you online?

To follow me, you can check out my LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter profile.

To follow our work at JASA, you can check out www.jasa.org or follow @JASASeniors on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Thank you for the time you have spent with us and for your excellent work.

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