"I tried to kill myself," said Kenny Williams candidly.
The 63-year-old had spent 19 years in jail on on a drug charge and had no idea how to acclimate himself back into society. To relax, he would go and sit in the publicly-accessible garden at Mission Creek Day Health at 930 4th St. (near Berry St.) and look at the birds.
Mission Creek Day Health is one of four centers run by Stepping Stone Health, an organization founded in 1983 that focuses on the needs of seniors and disabled adults. Now, the center is expanding its day program so that it can support more seniors in living an independent life.
Williams himself was first invited to join Mission Creek Day Health after he was approached by an employee at the garden. That small gesture turned out to be a lifeline for him.
"I was very isolated," Williams told Hoodline. "I stayed in my room and avoided people. I had a bad anxiety problem."
"This program is here to provide people the support they need so they can they remain as independent as possible and in their homes for as long as they can," said Mollie Tobias, Stepping Stone's executive director.
The day program includes two shifts: 7:30am–12:30pm and 12:30pm–5:30pm, and intake begins with an interview with a social work assistant to determine what kind of program each individual might want. Language services are also available in Chinese and Korean, and the assistant explains Medi-Cal, Veterans' Administration, and private options for payment. There's also an appointment scheduled for a visit to the center itself.
"Many don't realize how lonely they are," Tobias said. "They might want a physical therapist to be able to move without pain or to be able to put on socks in the morning. Many times we know more about the participants than their doctor does—we will inform the doctors."
She added that participants in the programs often have particular challenges. They may not be able to move around easily, have chronic illnesses, suffer from dementia, and may or may not have caregivers.
Even those without physical challenges may run into other issues. "Seniors and adults with disabilities [also] face isolation, sadness, and forgetfulness," Tobias said. "They are a population that have a difficult time advocating for themselves whether it is due to mobility, speech, or mental health diagnosis."
Stepping Stone's clients come from all walks of life and demographics in San Francisco, including folks from the city's African-American, Asian-American (including Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Vietnamese), Caucasian, Latinx and Russian communities.
One major benefit of the services and programs provided at Mission Creek Health Center and other Stepping Stone locations, which serve 350 people a year, is that they come at a fraction of the cost of nursing homes and are covered by Medi-Cal. "It reduces the cost at the city, state and federal levels," Tobias said. "Stepping Stone is part of a continuum of long-term care—many of our clients are close to the last stages of life."
She pointed out that when changes are made in government funding, it's seniors and adults who are often the first to be impacted.
"This population can’t get a job," she said. "They are at a point in their life that they need the help of the community to live in the community verses living in a skilled nursing facility. Not only is it more comfortable for people to live at home, but it costs less for taxpayers."
At the four Stepping Stone locations, there are social workers who help families and caregivers. Activity coordinators keep the seniors engaged, with multiple events happening at the same time to provide variety.
To that end, Stepping Stone is looking for volunteers, particularly crafts teachers, performers, yoga practitioners and computer tutors.
For Williams, the support and friendship provided at Stepping Stone was critical. He credits the organization for "saving his life."
"I found out that I was missing out on life," he said. "I started coming and it's been a whole new world. I started meeting people and learning new things."
Williams took computer classes and learned how to navigate the internet. He began eating better because he now gets two meals a day, and takes part in exercise classes.
"I was very scared," he told us. "I'm not scared anymore."
For more information on Stepping Stone and its programs, visit their website at steppingstonehealth.org. For intake services, caregivers and family members can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 415-974-6784.
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