ALAMEDA -- With plenty of work and heart but little fanfare, a volunteer program in Alameda is lifting the loneliness that can come with being housebound.
Tanya Alexieff is among the recipients of the Friendly Visitors Program, an arm of the Alameda Meals on Wheels operation. After arm surgery last year, Alexieff signed up for the Island volunteer meal delivery program, unable to get out to shop or to cook. The meals were a big help, but a while later, finding her life lacking the sociability she had previously enjoyed, Alexieff read a brochure that the Meals on Wheels volunteer brought on a visit.
"Friends visited, but it wasn't steady," she said. "I got lonely."
It took a few weeks for the Friendly Visitors director, Kathy Miranda, to find a match visitor she thought would share Alexieff's interest, which primarily includes her devout Christianity, followed by her devout love of anything Disney and anything San Francisco Giants. Fabiola Martinez became a match.
"When I found out about the program, I was working, but I had heard about the program," Martinez said. "When I quit my job, I knew I wanted to volunteer for Friendly Visitors. Except for my daughter and husband, all of my family is in Mexico. I feel that Tanya is like my family."
The duo has weekly chats, catching up each other on the latest in their lives. Occasionally, they have coffee out. Martinez took Alexieff to Sushi House for her birthday and Alexieff made brownies for Martinez's birthday. She has an attended a church dinner at Alexieff's parish and Alexieff has had dinner with the Martinez family at their house.
Alexieff, a native Alamedan, graduated from St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in 1965. She and Martinez have taken a driving tour of the houses that Alexieff lived in town during her school years. Talking her living room couch in her condominium, Alexieff is flanked on all sides by happy Disney characters and Giants memorabilia on her walls and furniture. Since their first meeting about a year ago, Alexieff has coached her new friend in the workings of baseball. And it's likely no coincidence that Martinez and her daughter recently visited Disneyland.
Alexieff majored in early childhood education and recreational management at Sacramento State University and intended to work with children. But the pay wasn't enough to support her independence, so she took a job in Del Monte in San Francisco, planning to put in a few years, save money for five years and go back to her first career choice. That five years turned into 16 years. In her spare time, she travelled, often to Yosemite, one of her favorite places.
Life went on and eventually her family numbers dwindled; her parents and her brother died. She has a sister who lives in Fort Bragg. She has friends from church. But even as health issues have curbed her ability to get around to see her friends as often, as she and Martinez grew to know one another, her life has changed for the better.
"This program has really been a godsend," she said. "It makes my whole week. Look forward to it all week. I'll see something and think I'll have to tell Fabi about that. Or if I let her know I'm not feeling so good today after a while of us talking I mentally perk.
"Tanya is a blessing in my life as well," Martinez said. "She is a nice person. When I have a problem, because she is like family, I know I can call her and talk to her."
The process for recipients and visitors is they are interviewed separately, with the program interviewer assessing the recipients' needs and interests. Volunteers are interviewed, trained and complete background checks. The time needed to make matches ranges from a few days to a few months, Miranda said.