By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER, Rafu Staff Intern
Japanese American community centers in L.A. County have closed in recent weeks, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Spring events have been canceled or postponed. Many of the usual rhythms of life have come to a halt.
Members who regularly visit community centers to gather with friends, play games, dance, or share a meal must now live in isolation. “It has been a real challenge,” said Nancy Oda, past president of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center (SFVJACC). The SFVJACC was one of the first centers to close, on March 5.
Nancy Oda and husband Kay Oda, current president of the SFVJACC, said that because friendships are such a big part of life at the center, it has been hard for people to be unable to see each other.
Pearl Omiya, executive director of the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center (ESGVJCC), said that the center has felt lonely without its members. “We miss them. The strength of a community center is its people. So when the people aren’t there, it’s kind of sad.”
The ESGVJCC serves 600 families — around 5,000 people. The center gradually shut down its programs, beginning with senior programs, and closed its infant care center on March 13. The center closed entirely on March 20.
While members cannot be together physically, centers are continuing to serve their communities. Centers have begun conducting classes online. Saturday Japanese school and martial arts lessons are now taught through the video conferencing program Zoom. “Everything we are trying to operate remotely as much as possible,” said Wesley Shimoda, president of the Venice Japanese Community Center (VJCC), which closed in mid-March.
Community centers are using social media and phone trees to stay in touch with members and ease the loneliness of isolation. “[We want to] let them know that we’re thinking about them,” Omiya said. “The center is such a big part of [members’] lives. We’re seeing the ways we can touch base, and make people feel better, and less scared.”
Once in-person activity resumes, the ESGVJCC hopes to teach a workshop for seniors on how to use video calling technologies like Zoom and Facetime.
Nancy Oda said a phone call can raise the spirits of folks who are used to seeing each other daily. When a friend called her the other day, Oda said, “the energy I got from it was very uplifting.”
In addition to supporting people at home, the SFVJACC is urging members to support local restaurants offering take-out food. On its Facebook page, the SFVJACC posted the names of a handful of community restaurants who have supported the center for years: Chiba, Katsuya, Musashi, Small Island, and Sushi Dragon. For the hours and phone numbers of these restaurants, search online or the visit the SFVJACC Facebook page.
In order to meet social distancing requirements, the VJCC has altered its daily senior nutrition program to a grab-and-go system. The ESGVJCC is also thinking about starting a grab-and-go lunch system, by purchasing take-out food from local businesses and boxing it for members to pick up.
In order to protect the health of their communities, many centers do not yet know when they will reopen. “We’re just in limbo right now,” said Shimoda.
While it cannot yet reopen in full, the ESGVJCC is considering opening its infant care center, which serves eight families. It would operate on a modified schedule. “I know some of our families are definitely relishing in this quality time that they’re getting to spend [with children],” said Omiya. At the same time, because balancing work and the needs of children can be stressful, opening the infant care center could provide relief to working parents.
The last event held at the ESGVJCC before closing was the annual Queen Coronation ceremony on March 15. At that time, social gatherings could still involve 30 people or less. Event attendees sat six feet apart from each other, and were served food by staff rather than themselves. “It was definitely different,” Omiya said. “We usually hug … This year we did the elbow bumps.”
This year’s queen, Kiyomi Arimitsu Takemoto, will not be able to attend many of the in-person events usually scheduled for queens.
Because the shelter-in-place orders of the COVID-19 crisis are such new terrain, community centers are figuring out how to adapt to the situation daily. “I don’t think we’re done innovating and creating new ways to connect with people,” Omiya said.
While the centers are longing for the days when members could gather in person, the closures have caused centers to experiment with new ideas. “Teachers are using different teaching methodology to keep children engaged,” Omiya said. The center has been brainstorming ideas for its preschool students, such as sending home activity packets and supplies that parents can do with kids.
Nancy Oda said the SFVJACC is brainstorming what organizations and clubs can do to help its members, such as making masks, delivering food to people with no local family, or playing long-distance bingo.
Community centers remain ready to help their people however they can. “If [you]have any needs, or need any assistance, please reach out to us at the VJCC,” said Shimoda. The VJCC has been working with local churches and temples to connect with seniors, and is still available by mail, email, telephone, and Facebook.
Nancy Oda hopes that community centers can work together and learn from one another during the COVID-19 crisis. “I’d like to see us have a meeting after this, or sometime soon, to discuss disaster preparation for our community,” she said.
“If everybody jumps on board and tries to help the community, we will survive this,” said Kay Oda.
Nancy Oda said the SFVJACC was built on the backs of gardeners and farmers who had just been released from camp, most from Manzanar. They lived in a trailer camp in Burbank as late as 1955, working by day and planning the creation of the center by night. “They understood the value of community living,” Nancy Oda said. This kind of sticking together, she added, can help communities through the COVID-19 crisis.
“I think … the only way through it is as a community,” said Omiya. “So, everyone’s supporting each other. I’m sure that’s been a source of strength for everyone.”
The Venice Japanese Community Center’s grab-and-go lunch program operates Monday through Friday, from 10:45-11 a.m. Meals must be picked up by a friend or family member under 65. When picking up, enter the VJCC parking lot, park, and remain in your car. Place a box or reusable grocery bag in your trunk or backseat, and tape or clip your donation (suggested $2.50 per meal) to it. To place an order or arrange for home delivery, call the VJCC at (310) 822-8885 and leave a message. To sign up for the Senior Nutrition Program, call (323) 749-5384, or simply place and order and sign up when you pick up your meal. To contact the center, call (310) 822-8885, email [email protected], or visit http://vjcc.com/. You can also contact the center on Facebook.
If you need assistance from the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, call (818) 935-2603 or register on the SFVJACC website (http://www.sfvjacc.com/covid-19-response.html). The SFVJACC is also welcoming volunteers to help San Fernando Valley residents with groceries, pharmacy pick-ups, and other communications. If you would like to volunteer, call the number or follow the link above. You can also contact the center at (818) 899-1989, via email at [email protected], or on Facebook. Kay Oda would like to thank Jeremy Tsuneishi and Bing Lau for bringing COVID-19 awareness with advice from Dr. Richard Kang in early March to the Board of Directors, which voted unanimously to close the center the next day.