For Westchester’s Citizen of the Year, it’s all about coming together to support seniors

Anyone who knows Carol Kitabayashi and her work with Westside Pacific Villages (WPV) will not find it surprising that she has been named the 2021 Citizen of the Year by the Westchester Rotary Club. The club selects an annual honoree to celebrate at their spring event for their outstanding work in the community.

As WPV’s Executive Director for the last nine years, Kitabayashi has made it her mission to support seniors who wish to “age in place,” allowing them to remain active and independent at home. Prior to WPV, Kitabayashi worked in human resources, but always felt she would end up in the nonprofit world. Through her work with the Meals on Wheels program, she happened to meet someone who was on the board of WPV. Already interested in issues impacting seniors and with experience taking care of her parents and older relatives, she thought the organization was a great fit. A few months later, she was hired to lead the nonprofit.

“The older population, I think, is really overlooked and neglected,” says Kitabayashi. “People kind of turn away from wanting to help older adults. I don’t know if it’s because they sort of see their own mortality in there, but I just feel like this is a group that really deserves our respect and support.”

Rotary volunteers get ready for their weekly deliveries.

While pre-pandemic WPV offered much-needed resources for its members, which range in age from 70 to 104, when COVID hit, its services like running errands, rides to doctors’ appointments, tech assistance and phone calls, became even more critical.

Knowing seniors would be among the most vulnerable groups impacted by the pandemic, not only health-wise but socially as well, Kitabayashi urged her board to offer their services for free for those that could not afford membership. Getting the green light, she quickly assembled a group of community partners, including the Westchester Rotary, Westchester Family YMCA and others, to launch WPV CARES within weeks of the Safer at Home order being issued.

“Carol’s efforts have been nothing less than phenomenal,” said Westchester Rotary Club President Tom Johnstone. “It has been a tremendous honor for the members of our club to support WPV and our precious seniors, keeping them healthy and connected during these challenging times.”

In March 2020, when many organizations scrambled to know what to do or where to focus, with Kitabayashi at the helm, WPV kicked into overdrive. In the early days of the pandemic, brave volunteers masked up to shop for seniors, pick up medications and rallied to provide check-in calls and help setting up Zoom so people could see their loved ones. To provide connection in a time when many felt isolated, the delivery of weekly care packages to spread cheer quickly became a centerpiece of the program.

“Each act of kindness has meant so much to an older adult stuck at home, giving them something to look forward to and feel good about,” said Kitabayashi.

With requests for WPV’s services growing, Kitabayashi and her team started to run out of space to organize their deliveries and caught the attention of Legado owners Edward and Elissa Czuker who were moved by the organization’s mission. The Czukers offered the nonprofit free space at 200 Culver Blvd. in Playa del Rey, which not only gave Kitabayashi a headquarters for WPV CARES, but also access to a large parking lot–a perfect location for volunteers to easily socially distance while assembling and picking up the care packages that go out weekly to up to 250 local seniors. Being located at one of Playa del Rey’s most popular intersections—Culver Blvd. and Vista del Mar—also created a buzz as people walked by and inquired about the volunteers’ activities.

Beautiful flower arrangements are ready for pick-up by WPV CARES volunteers.

As word spread about WPV’s efforts, volunteering and donating became contagious with numerous local groups, community members and businesses contacting Kitabayashi with offers to help. WPV CARES regularly receives support from an anonymous family foundation that donates meals from Cantalini’s Salerno Beach; local families drop off handmade cards of encouragement weekly; The Book Jewel has donated bookmarks; Super Pop Snacks has sent over protein bars; the Westchester Pharmacy has provided PPE and the list goes on and on. Cedars-Sinai has also awarded the group two large grants to ensure their work can continue.
Despite the challenges of the last 12 months, Kitabayashi says it was uplifting how fast WPV received an “outpouring of support.”

“WPV had the foresight to realize what we were doing was exactly what the community needed to help get folks through the pandemic situation,” said Kitabayashi. “I have never worked with such a wonderful group of giving, caring people. It’s exposed me to that very positive aspect of our community and human nature.”

By the end of last year, the organization celebrated not only its 10th anniversary, but also the fact that they had provided an average of 1,000 services per month and completed more than 10,500 requests since starting the WPV CARES program.

Kitabayashi hopes this support from volunteers and donors will last beyond Safer at Home orders.

“There’s so much to learn and benefit from those that were here before us,” she says. “WPV is a great example of our community supporting all its members.”

The WPV CARES program will remain active for the duration of the pandemic and will continue to pivot as needed. A new service they recently added was helping members sign up for COVID vaccines and transportation to appointments.

For Kitabayashi, the honor of being recognized by the Westchester Rotary Club is especially meaningful because they’ve been a supporter from the beginning. In the early days of the organization, they acted as the group’s fiscal sponsor until WPV received their nonprofit status.
“I’m really flattered and honored to receive this prestigious award. When the pandemic hit, the Westchester Rotary Club was one of the first to reach out to us to ask how they could help the senior population, who were most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. Darlene Fukuji, the Rotary President at the time, rallied the club to get involved with WPV and to this day, Westchester Rotarians remain engaged and involved on a regular basis, in many ways,” said Kitabayashi.

Kitabayashi will receive her award at the Rotary Club’s “Magic to Do” virtual celebration on March 19 at 6 p.m. In addition to the Citizen of the Year presentation, the program will include a silent auction and culminate with a magic show that all attendees can participate in. Tickets are $50 and will benefit the Westchester Rotary Foundation’s annual giving budget to support projects like the makeover at the Emerson Avenue Community Garden, scholarships and more.
For more information, to purchase a ticket or sponsor the event, please visit WRCSpring.Givesmart.com.

To learn more about WPV, please visit thewpv.org.