Neighbors chip in to help the people around them

Neighbors helping neighbors: It’s more than just the motto of the Pinellas County-based senior-care nonprofit organization, Neighborly. It’s a value that shows “everything that’s right,” as the executive director of Neighborly, David Lomaka, explains. “We always read in the news about what’s wrong with the world, or wrong about the country, but in the Neighborly picture—the attitude of simply helping out your neighbors—that’s what’s right, and we should focus more on what’s right.”

David Lomaka

Lomaka has been focusing on geriatric care for his entire professional career. With more than 40 years in nonprofit work, and leadership positions for the last 25, Lomaka brings a “social worker’s heart with a business mindset” to the field of human services.

His neighborly attitude started from childhood, shoveling snow from the driveways of neighbors, while growing up in Michigan. As he remembers, “It was just a value I was raised with, a value I tried to instill in my children. I was one of seven kids, and since my parents were understandably busy, our grandparents had a huge role in our lives. I had a love for seniors since I was 15 years old and that motivated me in university with my studies.”

Lomaka earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in guidance and counseling, focusing on gerontology. Family vacations down south to Clearwater also provided a Florida connection and Lomaka worked, early in his career, in Naples for 10 years before returning to the Sunshine State to settle in at Neighborly in 2018.

Offering everything from adult daycare, to transportation, to meeting nutritional needs, Neighborly is a national leader in senior care, established more than 50 years ago and one of the first nonprofit organizations in the country to distribute “meals on wheels.” Yet the past decade had seen a decline in their services because of unsustainable growth. Two years ago, Lomaka was brought in to reset the course.

“Neighborly was a ship without a rudder or sail. We had gone from 28 different locations of adult daycare down to only six, or seven, locations but had not made the fundamental changes we needed to be sustainable,” Lomaka says. “My first task was to right the ship and provide a rudder with direction.”

For Lomaka, that meant reaching out to neighbors.

“We started rebuilding relationships throughout Pinellas County, throughout the municipalities and with our various aging networks and throughout our team of volunteer supporters,” he says. “We righted the ship financially and we built up new, and existing, relationships.”

He also looked to expand the definition of “neighbor,” starting a new partnership with the St. Vincent DePaul Society, which supplies transitional housing to homeless veterans. Neighborly provides the meals in a joint effort to get struggling veterans back on track.

“We’re just scratching the surface on what we can do,” Lomaka says. “Pinellas has more seniors, by percentage, than any other county in Florida. So whether it’s the ability to extend our fundraising, or to connect with small businesses or restaurants, with a location to share, or whether it’s the ability to recruit more board members, we’re always looking for new opportunities, people and volunteers.”

Although the coronavirus pandemic initially depleted Neighborly’s network of volunteers, the situation also increased the community’s awareness of helping others. Lomaka credits the “phenomenal” response as the summer months brought “an army” of new volunteers, now with over 800 active volunteer drivers or supporters.

“Before COVID-19, we were delivering over 1,000 meals a day with 1,000 people on a waiting list. Now we’re delivering over 2,500 meals a day and the waiting list is virtually eliminated. Basically, on any given day there are about 150 volunteers delivering meals for us. Multiply by five days a week and that’s a lot of meals needing volunteers, and it’s a huge force. So, there has been a silver lining with the funding and surge in community response. When you think about the many seniors who were on a waiting list or the homeless veterans who are now getting services that they weren’t before,” he says.

Lomaka believes it’s an ideal time to refocus on the simple message of helping others.

“I’d like to be able to influence the Legislature to free up new funding. And because of this situation, this might be the time to make fundamental changes. We don’t want to go back to 1,000 people on a waiting list for a hot meal and individual care,” Lomaka says.

As Neighborly reminds people, we’re all in life together.

“There are common milestones in life and as we age, the milestones can become devastating,” Lomaka explains. “When you think about senior milestones, it’s often about loss. Grown children have moved away, they’ve lost their driver’s license or, in a lot of cases, they’ve lost someone they were married to for 40-plus years. They’re losing their health. And often one of the last things they’re able to hang on to is their home. Neighborly tries to be the intervention between staying independent and having to move into a dependent housing situation or assisted living…That’s why we’re here. We’re here to help people maintain their independence at home.”

As Lomaka concludes, in our connected world, neighbors helping neighbors is helping ourselves. Lomaka retells a recent experience where he was part of an event delivering meals for veterans.

“The vets were telling our volunteers that we are their heroes, and when you hear that from a veteran, it’s just remarkable. Our volunteers often tell us they get more from this experience than they give so it is shared, valuable work that helps everyone because many of our volunteers are at a milestone too, where they’re searching for value in life,” he says.

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