Sasha Yerkovich grew up in Connecticut and spent her post-college years working at Variety newspaper in Los Angeles. She got to hobnob with stars and even had a couple of screenwriters in the family: her husband, Edward, who had modest success, and brother-in-law Anthony, who co-created the TV series “Miami Vice.”
Yerkovich and her husband returned to his native Western New York a quarter-century ago to raise a family and start a different life, one that for the last 15 months has included a 5-year-old effort to help older Buffalonians stay in their homes as long as possible.
“This city has everything,” Yerkovich said. “It just doesn’t know it yet.”
She continues to grow into her role as executive director of Canopy of Neighbors, a nonprofit group that matches volunteers with those 60 and over who need help with transportation and social needs, as well as tackling odd jobs around their residences.
Her husband, who works in orthopedic medical sales, has mowed lawns and put up mailboxes for those who have subscribed as members of Canopy of Neighbors. Their three sons – all with engineering backgrounds – have fixed computers. They are among about 50 volunteers who help about 200 members.
The organization, based in a couple of offices at Temple Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue, is modeled on the Village Movement started in Boston, Mass., about 15 years ago.
Q. Talk about the role Canopy of Neighbors plays.
Pretend you are providing a service that gives you a substitute niece, sister, daughter, child. We live in a community where, sadly, a lot of the generations have split apart. Life isn’t where you grow up on Hertel and you stay on Hertel. You’re not always surrounded by your friends and family. Some of our members’ children have moved away because of what’s happened to Buffalo in the last 30, 40 years. We have members of both low income and of means who are left alone by circumstance because of the way society has changed.
Q. Can you talk about the services available?
Transportation is probably number one. Some people have had to give up cars or never had them. We get people to the grocery store who need somebody to shop with them, carry their groceries, carry them up to their apartment. We will take you to anywhere imaginable: hairdresser, speech therapy, chemo, medical appointments. Our programming is important. We put on life-affirming, feed-your-soul speakers, authors, once or twice a month and provide transportation to our building for that. We have a wonderful member who is Jap anese, who came out of her shell and now teaches origami classes for us. We have Christmas cookie parties, tea parties. We take a trip on the Miss Buffalo once in the summer, something you normally would not do alone. We provide transportation. We go as a group. We laugh. Some people have never been on the Miss Buffalo. We have a member who owns a small goat farm in Ellicottville. We take people out every year. It’s a riot. Some of these people have never been to Elliocottville, not seen a goat in 50 years. One of our board members runs a chair yoga class at Baptist Manor every Wednesday.
Q. What geographic area do you serve?
We are city central. Our “village” happens to be urban. There are many villages that happen to be rural. We hope to be a hub and spoke operation. We want to make sure we’re a strong hub before we go out.
Q. Your website (canopyofneighbors.org) says it costs $400 a year for an individual subscription and $600 a family.
There is a fee to join and it’s on a sliding scale depending on income. It can be as little as $10 a month to a little more than $30 a month, which can get you unlimited transportation, volunteer support, social programing. We’re very fortunate to have grants and foundations that help us subsidize members. We are as a growing nonprofit always looking for funding sources. Some of the villages across the country are supported by local governments because running this model is much cheaper than having to build senior housing or having to fund more transportation for seniors.
Q. Does government help here?
No. San Francisco village offices, two of them, get $100,000 each from city government. Our budget as a whole is less than that.
Q. Can you talk about the volunteers?
We have them from all walks of life. They’re fully vetted. They go through a background check. This is Buffalo, so somebody knows them. They’re judge’s wives, retired physicians, retired teachers, real estate agents, attorneys. I had a girl who called and said she lost her grandmother and that having someone in that age group, with that level of experience, was so terrible to lose that she now volunteers for us. We have a couple of students who have fulfilled their academic requirements and chose to stay on because they’ve become attached to those they have helped. We have a volunteer whose specialty is driving our members to chemotherapy appointments. His wife passed 10 years ago from cancer. This is what he’s devoted his life to. We are very diverse culturally, socioeconomically. Jewish. Christian. Muslim. Indian. It’s extraordinary. It reflects Buffalo.
Q. How can folks volunteer?
They can call our offices at 235-8133. You can look on our website. You volunteer at your convenience. We send out an email list of requests, and dates and times and duration. You let us know what you can do. If you take a member to a weekly hair appointment that, for them, is their weekly social excursion, that is worth pure gold to us.
Q. How can people donate?
Through the website or you can call our offices and we’ll lead you through the process.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon