Simon Hill is an optimistic kind of guy and as the newest director of the YMCA’s Outreach Program for Ahwatukee Seniors, of Y OPAS, he’s looking to a future without pandemic parameters.

Hill, 30, joined the program earlier this month and is transitioning into the role even as he remains a bit hobbled by COVID-19 restrictions. 

“We had to cut back on some services during COVID, but we are looking to get it up and going again as we’re able,” said Hill, whose office is at the Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA on East Liberty Lane.

Y OPAS has been an integral part of helping area seniors retain their independent living since 2001, when it was established at the Mountain View Lutheran Church. It became a YMCA program in 2006.  

Since then, it has offered free support services to Ahwatukee seniors and their caretakers, thanks to assistance of a cadre of volunteers. 

Because COVID restrictions remain in place with stay-at-home directives and social distancing guidelines, Hill has had limited access to the volunteers, which at their peak numbered 178, and the clients Y OPAS serves.

But he is optimistic that as vaccinations increase, Y OPAS in-person events will return, hopefully by fall.

“I know there’s been a lot of anticipation for when we’ll be able to resume in-person events, and we’re aiming now for September when we traditionally host one of our most popular events - the Community Tea,” said Hill, a Michigan native. 

“This event will be a ‘welcome back’ for our clients and volunteers, and be the official celebration of our 20th anniversary,” he said. 

In the interim, service continuity has provided seniors with rides to doctors, vaccination sites and grocery shopping. Prior to the pandemic, rides were also available to hair salons, barber shops, nail salons and other non-essential travel destinations.

“We have a handful of dedicated volunteers who are our drivers during this time. Without their assistance, so many seniors would be unable to get around. The volunteers are really the lifeline to our program,” said Hill noting drivers maintain social distancing and required masking for drivers and passengers.

“Without this service, many seniors didn’t know how they would be able to go get groceries or get to their medical appointments,” he added.

Jane Forde, a 29-year Ahwatukee resident, is one of those “handful of volunteers” who have remained active through the pandemic. 

“I love Y OPAS and its mission to help Ahwatukee seniors to live independently,” said Forde, a Y OPAS volunteer for 18 years.  “To keep serving our seniors during COVID was and is a challenge, and it amazes me how our volunteers stepped up in so many ways.”

With the Y OPAS office closed, Forde said a core of volunteers were set up to take calls remotely.

“Our phone tree volunteers called clients to check on them, while another group offered to take them food shopping. The dedication of the drivers who took clients to medical appointments was amazing, especially during the summer months when they weren’t even allowed into any physician offices. Although not fully-operational, we were able to provide essential services to our seniors that would not have been feasible if we shut down completely,” she explained. 

Forde said the organization had many goals that had to be put on hold. 

“Social isolation is such a big issue with the senior population, so returning to some of our social activities will be so welcome down the road,” she said. “I’ve been able to meet Simon on a few occasions, and I find him to be excited, enthusiastic and engaged in this program. He will work hard to pull it all back together; of that I have no doubt.”

Hill is actively seeking to grow the active volunteer base as more seniors once again begin seeking rides. Y OPAS is currently doing in-home intake, and after seven days, approved seniors are allowed to request up to two rides per week.

Volunteer Leslie Diephuis and her husband Steve are both drivers, but during the slow period of 2020, she found ways to use her talents in the office. 

“During the pandemic, I drove only a handful of times because, luckily, we had just enough drivers to handle all the appointments,” said Diephuis, 51. 

“I did, however, volunteer a lot of hours working on operationalizing the office,” Diephuis added. “I took all our paper processes and brought them online so that we could recruit other office volunteers to work remotely.”

She said Hill will be an asset to the organization.

“Simon is amazing, and it’s great to have someone with a new perspective and ideas.”

One of Hill’s new ideas is working on an outreach program with Arizona State University and other area colleges in an effort to woo younger volunteers to drive and fill other capacities. 

“We’re looking for students to help us,” he said, explaining drivers must be 21 or older, have reliable transportation and insurance, and be “someone understanding of our mission.” 

“One of my main focuses coming into this position is to connect the younger generations with opportunities here. I believe that with being on the younger side of things, this will help with how we market positions such as Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok and other social media. I also plan to position Y OPAS within community coalitions to better seek more volunteers for our organization” he said. 

“Volunteers are the true lifeblood of any nonprofit and they drive our organization forward. This is our 20th year so there is so much to celebrate   from surviving a global pandemic, economic and societal changes, Y OPAS has continued to stay strong. It’s a truly beautiful program that I am blessed and grateful to be a part.”

Hill comes from a family involved in community service. His mother, now retired and living in Phoenix, was a family therapist and director of a homeless shelter. One older brother is a fire department chief and the other works with the Michigan Department of Human Services.

Hill said volunteerism was important to him throughout his high school years as he tallied more than 1,500 hours volunteering at a homeless shelter. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Award for Community Service by President Barack Obama. 

He is pursuing a master’s degree with a focus on public administration from Central Michigan State.

Hill said he was proud to find how Y OPAS successfully managed throughout 2020, citing figures that included 3,438 one-way trips, 147 clients, 126 volunteers amassing more than 3,600 hours, and 31,063 miles driven.

“That is amazing to see especially during a pandemic,” he exclaimed. 

Y OPAS is available to meet the needs of seniors 65 and older who reside within the three Ahwatukee zip codes. 

Information: 602-212-6088 or email opas@vosymca.org.

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