DALLAS — For 81-year-old Dell Kaplan, the offer to get calls from a stranger just to chat while staying home during the coronavirus pandemic was immediately appealing.
“It gets pretty lonely here by yourself,” said Kaplan, a suburban Dallas resident who has been missing meals out with friends, family get-togethers and going to classes at a nearby college.
The program being offered by the city of Plano is among those that have popped up across the U.S. during the pandemic to help older adults with a simple offer to engage in small talk.
“It’s really just to give them a social outlet that they might not have otherwise,” said Holly Ryckman, a library support supervisor who is among about 15 staffers from several city departments in Plano who together have been making about 50 calls a week starting in April.
Brent Bloechle, a library manager who helped organize the program, said the city plans to keep it up through at least mid-summer, and maybe permanently.
The people receiving the calls have various amounts of social interaction in their lives, Ryckman said. Many, she said, talk about relatives who are in touch, so her call might be just be “one piece of the puzzle” helping them stay engaged.
That’s the case for Kaplan, who regularly talks with her daughter, granddaughters and friends, keeps up with people on Facebook and has been participating online in her adult-learning classes.
But Kaplan said her biweekly chats with Ryckman give her something to look forward to “besides the usual.”
Laurie Onofrio-Collier has been making calls to older people across the U.S. from her California home as part of the AARP’s Friendly Voices program. Onofrio-Collier said her goal is for each person she calls “to feel uplifted, to feel good.”
Like the Plano program, the volunteers for the Friendly Voices program guide people to resources if they need help from local groups for things like getting groceries — AARP’s Community Connections site lists groups across the U.S. offering help — but the main point is conversation.
Onofrio-Collier said some people she has called live with a spouse, while others live alone.
She said conversations touch on everything from hobbies to vacations to happy memories.
Onofrio-Collier bonded with one caller over a shared experience: “We ended up talking about how … when we were kids we loved to read so much that we would read under the covers with a flashlight.”
“I get off the phone with a smile,” Onofrio-Collier said.
She is among about 1,000 volunteers making the calls, according to Andy Miller, senior vice-president of AARP Innovations Labs.
Miller said some people want help with technology so they can stay connected with their grandchildren. One volunteer helped a woman figure out how to play online checkers with her grandchild.
“We’re seeing a lot of that — where people are just trying to stay connected to family in ways that they probably didn’t do before,” Miller said.
Older adults are among those who are particularly vulnerable to severe illness and death from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That’s why health officials are encouraging people over 65 to stay home even as some states loosen restrictions put in place because of the pandemic. For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, and the vast majority recover within a few weeks.
“Some seniors may be the last ones out because of the vulnerability,” Miller said.
Kaplan, who retired 11 years ago after more than two decades managing Plano’s senior centre, said she and Ryckman didn’t know each other, but found common ground in talking about the city and dealing with isolating at home.
Ryckman said the calls have been “a gift” for her.
Kaplan said that when she feels it’s safe for her to venture to places other than the grocery store, she plans to visit the library and meet Ryckman in person.
Jamie Stengle, The Associated Press
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BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Justice for Ahmaud Arbery, a black man killed during a pursuit by a white man and his son in Georgia, isn’t just prison time for his killers — it’s changes in a local justice system that never charged them with a crime, rallygoers said Saturday.
Hundreds of people came to the Glynn County courthouse demanding accountability for a case in which charges weren’t filed until state officials stepped in after a leaked video sparked national outrage.
Arbery, 25, was killed Feb. 23 just outside the port city of Brunswick. Gregory McMichael, 64, told police he and his son, Travis McMichael, 34, pursued Arbery because they believed he was responsible for recent break-ins in the neighbourhood.
The McMichaels weren’t arrested and charged with murder until May 7, after a video of the shooting was publicly released to a local radio station and less than 48 hours after state agents took over the case.
“Justice for Ahmaud is more than just the arrests of his killers,” said John Perry, president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter at the Saturday rally. “Justice is saying that we’ve got to clean up the house of Glynn County.”
Speakers at the rally demanded the resignation of Jackie Johnson, the district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit who recused herself from the investigation, and George Barnhill, the Waycross circuit district attorney who took over the case and declined to press charges. Gregory McMichael was an investigator in Johnson’s office before retiring last May. Both Johnson and Barnhill have denied wrongdoing.
Organizers of the rally said around 250 vehicles drove more than four hours from Atlanta for the rally, bringing historically black fraternities and sororities, civil rights organizations and black-led gun rights groups, who said if Arbery had armed himself, he might be alive today.
Attorney Mawuli Davis came from his suburban Atlanta home because he wanted to make it clear how many people are not satisfied with how the Arbery case has been handled.
“Georgians are just not safe when you allow an injustice like this to take place,” said Davis, who is an organizer with the Black Man Lab in Decatur, Georgia.
The case has brought reminders of several other black people killed in confrontations with white police officers or others and the names of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and others were mentioned during the rally.
“We’re going to keep on marching. We’re going to stand in solidarity. We’re going to keep on protesting. We’re going to keep on raising our voices because Ahmaud Arbery will get justice,” said Triana Arnold James, president of the Georgia chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Organizers asked the crowd to wear masks and stay a safe distance apart because of COVID-19. There were plenty of masks — some with Arbery’s picture — but many in the crowd were shoulder to shoulder for the rally and marched with arms locked after it was over.
Arbery family attorneys have said he’s the person recorded inside a house under construction right before he was killed. Gregory McMichael told police he suspected Arbery was responsible for recent break-ins and he also said Arbery attacked his son before he was shot.
Arbery’s mother has said she believes her son was merely out jogging. The video of the confrontation shows the McMichaels’ truck in front of Arbery as he runs toward it.
The attorney of the owner of the house under construction said she thinks Arbery was getting water. A man in similar clothes appeared in videos from the home at least twice, lawyer J. Elizabeth Graddy said.
The homeowner, Larry English, lives hours away and set up motion-activated security cameras that send him a text when they start filming.
English called the Glynn County Police after one notification Dec. 17. No one was arrested, but a detective sent English a text message three days later giving him Gregory McMichael’s phone number and identifying him as a retired law enforcement officer, adding “he said please call him day or night when you get action on your camera,” according to the Dec. 20 text shared by Graddy.
English never read the text until Graddy’s firm started reviewing his phone days ago.
“He never called Gregory McMichael. He never took him up on that offer,” Graddy said.
The text message was first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Arbery’s family ended Saturday’s rally thanking the crowd for their support and saying “we are all running for Ahmaud.”
The crowd then marched away from the courthouse, taking a knee in silence and blocking traffic for more than 60 seconds to symbolize the days it took for arrests in the case.
Then they chanted: “When black lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”
Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report. Morrison is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.
Aaron Morrison, The Associated Press
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