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Phone Calls Become A Lifeline During The Coronavirus

Erika Mahoney
Local organizations are turning to the telephone as a way to check-in with the people they serve during the COVID-19 pandemic.


With people stuck at home, the value of an old-fashioned phone call has taken on new meaning. KAZU News spotlights two local organizations who are making dozens of calls each day to check-in with their clients, all while facing their own struggles.

When the Monterey Sports Center, library and other services shut down in mid-March, a big gap was left in the city. These are places that senior citizens rely on for community. Sara Ziel is the recreation coordinator at Scholze Park Center, the senior center.

“I always tell my staff that we need to be welcoming and engaging with our customers because we may be the one conversation that this person has in a day,” Ziel said.  

Credit City of Monterey
The City of Monterey launched Operation Outreach in mid-March as a way to connect with the city's seniors and others at risk of COVID-19 via telephone.

Those important conversations are still happening, even while everyone is at home. About a month and a half ago, the city of Monterey launched Operation Outreach. Around 12 staff members from the sports center, library and senior center are calling the city’s most vulnerable populations, seniors and those at risk of COVID-19, to check-in and offer resources. 

Sarah Ziel and her colleague at the senior center make between 60 and 80 calls each day. 

“People just need someone to talk to and we do the best we can to talk them through any upset feelings or emotions that they're having and try and keep them as positive as we can,” she said.

These phone calls have also been a bright spot in Ziel’s day, even as she’s going through a hard time herself. The city of Monterey has proposed to lay off about 20 percent of its staff June 1. City council will vote on the proposal April 29.

“I am one of the people going through that process of potentially being laid off. So it is a scary time. But we are also keeping positive that we know this is something temporary,” Ziel said. 

The plan is to keep Operation Outreach going, despite the proposed layoffs. So far, the program has logged nearly 900 hours in phone calls. 

For Sharon Stugen, it’s helped with loneliness. When the senior center closed, she said she had no one to talk to. 

“And then all of a sudden the phone calls would come in once a week or so. And it was very, very helpful to get me through these trying times, or help to get me through these trying times,” Stugen said.

In Salinas, Interim, Inc. has created a similar program. The nonprofit, which serves about 1,800 people throughout the year, provides housing, social living skills and the OMNI Resource Center for people with mental illness. Kontrena McPheter is the peer outreach and advocacy coordinator.

“We have groups on meditation. We have groups on anger management. We have groups on nutrition. And these groups provide peer support because it’s peers that are leading these groups,” said McPheter.

The idea for their new phone call program, called the Warm Line, had been floating around for years. But the coronavirus suddenly made it necessary. When the OMNI center closed on March 12, staff turned to the telephone.  

“The Warm Line is a way that we can call each day or they can call in each day,” she said. 

Some of their participants are homeless, so they bought them cell phones. The phone mentors, as McPheter likes to call them, are already trained in communicating coping skills. They’re making around 200 calls each day. 

“We're that friendly voice on the other end of the line asking you how you're doing. And what are some of your struggles right now, whether it be anxiety, whether it be just fear,” said McPheter.

The mentors at OMNI also have mental health diagnoses. McPheter is bipolar. Making dozens of calls each day to people in-need can sometimes take a toll on her. But, she says, they also allow her to be part of a solution. 

“It has given me a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning and to be able to access life, even though it’s limited."

“It has given me a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning and to be able to access life, even though it’s limited,” she said. 

During these difficult times, a simple phone call can sometimes brighten the day for both people on the line.

Operation Outreach

Phone: 831-646-3933 

Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Warm Line 

Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Phone: 831-800-7660

Text: 831-998-7916


You Are Not Alone

The Santa Cruz Police Deparment and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office are also offering the You Are Not Alone (YANA) program to their more vulnerable residents for the duration of the shelter-in-place orders. For more information, call 831-420-5916 if you live in the city of Santa Cruz, or 831-454-7686 if you're a resident within the Sheriff's Office jurisdiction.



Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.