On Nov. 17, Smile On Seniors of Arizona celebrated 10 years of programs for seniors at its annual benefit fundraiser. Since Rabbi Levi and Chani Levertov started the program in 2009, it has expanded from one-on-one visits to a wide range of services, some of which reach hundreds of seniors a month.
Frances Lipsman lives in a retirement community in Scottsdale and has been participating in SOS programs for three years.
“It’s a fantastic group,” Lipsman said. “It’s so heartening to see young people do so much for seniors.”
When Levertov moved to Arizona in November 2009, he knew that he would start a program for seniors. But initially, it was only focused on visits to homebound seniors.
“Our narrow-minded vision was really just one-on-one visits,” Levertov said. “We weren’t thinking about the big picture of senior life in Arizona.”
When Levertov realized that the homes for seniors didn’t have the resources to do a Chanukah celebration, SOS evolved and began bringing more programs, activities and classes to retirement communities.
“Our goal was really just to offer more opportunities for people to engage, socialize, study, grow and be a part of the community,” Levertov said.
Today, SOS’ programs include movie nights, deli nights, kosher cooking workshops, lunches, Super Bowl parties, date nights and holiday programming in addition to visits from volunteers, therapy dogs and Rabbi Levi and Chani.
For all of its work, SOS relies on the help of volunteers and donors.
Nancy Mendelsohn starting volunteering in 2013 after she saw the need for volunteers and programs in her mother’s assisted living facility.
“I’m very passionate about seniors, especially seniors being alone and not having enough company, enough activities or people they can talk to,” Mendelsohn said. “I’ve gone through a lot with my own parents, and it was very, very difficult.”
Over the years, Mendelsohn has seen the organization grow as new programs are added and more seniors and volunteers join. She started out visiting seniors with her therapy dogs, and now organizes volunteers to play in weekly mahjong games at assisted living facilities. She also cooks for the monthly Shabbat dinners, which have grown from around 100 seniors when she started to an average of 250 each month.
“I go to the dinners now and I know so many people, so many seniors, whereas I probably wouldn’t have had many senior friends without it,” Mendelsohn said. “We learn so much from each other.”
Lipsman makes it her business to go to the Shabbat dinner every month. “When you see all the seniors there and everything is homemade and you’re made to feel so welcome, that’s quite a feat,” she said.
Mendelsohn sees the difference it makes for volunteers, seniors and the community.
“I don’t know anybody in this town whose parents are using it who aren’t thrilled,” Mendelsohn said. “It really bridges the gap. It helps so many seniors and so many families, and it has really built community.”
While 10 years marks a milestone for Smile On Seniors, the organization isn’t done growing. Long term, Levertov plans to build a center dedicated to SOS programs. For now, the organization is adding to the current building to be able to provide more programs on site.
“The idea is to just keep growing, keep offering services and meeting new people,” Levertov said. “More and more people are learning about it just by word of mouth.” JN