Man talking to seniors
Article California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence By Erin Barrows

Burbank expanded senior programs to keep vulnerable residents safe — and connected — during the loneliest months of the pandemic

The city of Burbank won the 2021 Helen Putnam Award for Health and Wellness Programs. For more information about the award program, visit

In 2015, Burbank — a San Fernando Valley city of roughly 100,000 residents — launched Project HOPE (Helping Others Prosper Everyday), a Parks and Recreation program with a simple mission: “Promote the independence, health, and dignity of older adults through compassion, kindness, commitment, and positivity.”

The program is mostly staffed by volunteers, who are vetted through the Burbank Volunteer Program. Project HOPE volunteers are hand-picked and paired with senior program participants to provide essential services to local at-risk and home-bound seniors, such as in-home visitation, grocery shopping, transportation services, and more. The program is a vital resource for Burbank’s senior community, along with the city’s Senior Nutrition Program and the Joslyn Adult Center’s many recreational offerings.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of park facilities, many seniors found themselves facing heightened anxiety and isolation since they could no longer safely socialize and interact with others.

“Living in isolation during the height of COVID was troubling,” said resident Frances Byrd. “I worried about being cut off from my day-to-day activities, accessibility to my essentials, and most importantly my health.”

Reimagining HOPE

In response, city staff reoriented its resources to meet the increase in demand for home-based services. To comply with public health orders, Project HOPE was forced to suspend in-home visitations and transportation services, but the city was able to continue services connecting seniors through a new program, Phone Pals, which provided much-needed companionship via telephone. Given the remote nature of the program, volunteer recruitment was expanded to include students from the Gerontology Program at California State University, Long Beach.

Group of volunteers

Similarly, the Joslyn Adult Center, a longtime partner, worked diligently to find creative ways to connect with the community, despite being closed. Each month, the team added new free programs and activities online. However, accessing virtual classes proved to be a challenge for some senior patrons. So, staff added telephone Zoom training to their service offerings to help seniors navigate virtual classes and meetings. This paved the way for the launch of monthly Virtual Bingo sessions, sponsored by the Regal Medical Group.

“I’m extremely proud of our Parks and Recreation Department for acting swiftly to the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic. They collaborated with city council, city departments, and other agencies to develop activities that supported our seniors’ mental and physical health while being mindful of COVID-19 safety regulations,” said Parks and Recreation Director Marisa Garcia.

The Department’s Senior Nutrition Program also faced several pandemic challenges. Before COVID-19, the program delivered meals to 130 individuals. At the start of the pandemic, that number jumped to nearly 240. The Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Funding provided $447,000 to the city of Burbank to assist with this program, allowing the city to meet the rise in demand.  

In mid-March 2020, the city’s congregate lunch program, offered at various parks facilities, was suspended due to public health orders. Staff had to find a way to provide these meals to participants, many of whom were dependent on the program for their food. Nutrition staff quickly devised a plan to ensure both fresh and frozen meals were provided to participating seniors.

At first, all participants were transitioned to the Home Delivered Meals program. As an added touch, staff also delivered special care packages to all participants. A drive-thru meal pickup service was later established at McCambridge Park to accommodate and comply with local mandates.

The Burbank community stepped up to help the Senior Nutrition Program, as well. Actress Elizabeth Stanton teamed up with Robert Earl, chairman of Buca, Inc., to donate 1,000 meals from Buca di Beppo Restaurant to low-income individuals registered in the city’s Program, Activity, and Service Subsidy program. The Providence St. Joseph Medical Center also generously provided Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to participants. Members from a local Boy Scout troop, along with community volunteers and members of Fire Station 15, volunteered to deliver the meals to the grateful seniors.

Food for the mind

People need more than just food to survive. With the isolation brought on by COVID-19, books and movies became important sources of solace and entertainment. To ensure that seniors had continued access to the Burbank Library’s materials collection, library staff developed a curbside pickup program, which served about 800 people per week. Those comfortable with the online catalog can reserve titles or sign up for the library’s Book Connection Program and allow staff to customize a set of items for them to enjoy. Seniors without internet access or technical skills can reserve items by telephone, and once prepared, can be picked up through contactless curbside pickup by seniors or their friends, family, or neighbors.

Elderly woman holding bag

As an institution that preserves Burbank’s history, the library also wanted to capture stories of people’s experiences and perspectives during the pandemic, and thus COVID-19 memory journals were also made available online and for curbside pickup and return. By providing a myriad of options to access library materials, vulnerable seniors who were fully isolating were not excluded from the benefits of literature and film.

“COVID-19 presented complex challenges throughout the world, but Burbank was prepared and adapted quickly,” said Mayor Bob Frutos. “Protecting our most vulnerable population throughout the pandemic was one of our top priorities, and city staff did an excellent job serving and advocating for the needs of our older adult residents.”

The pandemic forced staff to modify, pivot, and create new offerings. As a result, Burbank was able to grow its senior services and nutrition program, as well as create new ones. These programs have proven to be a success and have made a tremendous impact on the well-being of those that frequently visited Burbank’s senior centers before they temporarily closed to the public. At a time of increased isolation, they have provided seniors a peace of mind, a new friend, and most importantly, kept them safe.

Erin Barrows is a recreation services manager at the city of Burbank’s Parks and Recreation Department. She can be reached at or 818-238-5300. To learn more about Project HOPE, visit the city’s website or watch a video of the project.