Photo capton: Andrelina “Elna” Orbeta, an administrative assistant at the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA), has been an active participant of the NAPCA’s employment program for seven years. Photo credit: Amy Huang.

Participant Andrelina “Elna” Orbeta Reaps the Benefits

Try calling the main line to Seattle’s National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA). Within two rings, you will be greeted by Andrelina “Elna” Orbeta on the 9th floor of the Melbourne Tower in downtown Seattle with a warm, gentle voice readily to assist you with any questions about the organization.

Orbeta will be celebrating her 80th birthday this year.

Since August 2005, Orbeta has been a participant of the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) through NAPCA — a program that serves seniors 55 years and older who are limited-English or non-English speakers with job training at community-based nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Orbeta is one of more than 1,200 participants who work annually through this SCSEP from across nine metropolitan U.S cities.

Now almost 80, Orbeta reflects on her seven-year journey as a participant with the program, and now becoming a temporary NAPCA staff member as an administrative assistant. Despite her age, Orbeta continues to learn new and transferable skills from each of her job placements. She continues to persevere and adapt to new job responsibilities and along the way, Orbeta uses her opportunity to liberate and empower other seniors to develop as leaders in their communities.

“NAPCA attracts me because it is a program for seniors. I want to be able to help other seniors in any way I can,” says Orbeta. “I believe I still have the capacity to support them in any way I could.”

Throughout the last seven years, Orbeta was placed at five different host agencies. Each agency has allowed Orbeta to serve  a different population and clientele — expanding her knowledge of community-based resources and services to better support and provide for those in need.

“I’ve been assigned to five organizations,” says Orbeta. “First, I worked with people facing domestic violence. I learned that domestic violence impacts not only women, but men, too. I worked there for six months.”

After each temporary assignment, Orbeta embarked on another opportunity where she gained a wealth of resource-brokering and social work advocacy skills.

“I also got experience working at the emergency feeding program where I helped with the homeless population,” adds Orbeta. “The program doesn’t only serve the seniors, but young people as well who don’t have resources for food.”

Not only did Orbeta gain a stronger understanding of the needs throughout her community, she saw her ability to enact change. When she was placed at the International District Housing Alliance assisting clients on the verge of eviction or in need of immediate assistance for down payments, she treasured moments where she could extend a listening ear.

“I sometimes go beyond my work. I remember clients waiting outside for me at the office after 5 o’clock,” says Orbeta. “That is one thing I treasured so much because even though I cannot give them housing or the money they need right away, at least I can give them assurance that somebody is really there for them. And that makes me happy.”

Those eligible for the program often face challenges and multiple barriers to employment, including language acquisition, literacy and acculturation. The isolation and invisibility that plagues many senior immigrants is the reason behind NAPCA’s advocacy efforts to restore dignity, well-being and quality of life for the aging Asian American and Pacific Islander population.

“When seniors first come to our program, they are often discouraged by the challenges of finding jobs to sustain their lives,” says Dr. Eun Jeong Lee, NAPCA’s national director for SCSEP. “Most of our participants are immigrants who are linguistically and socially isolated from U.S. society. NAPCA SCSEP participants are not only gaining job and work opportunities, but also adjusting and overcoming barriers to become more confident citizens.”

Orbeta first visited Seattle from the Philippines with her husband to attend her daughter’s wedding in 1998. After the wedding, she went back to her country not knowing that Seattle would be her next adventure.

“My daughter really needed us for family purposes. So instead of staying home, I came here,” Orbeta explains.

Orbeta was already in her mid-60s when she decided to live permanently in the U.S. Besides the differences of food, language and culture, she was also challenged in trying to navigate a society dependent on advanced technologies.

“When I came here, I never touched computers in my life,” says Elna. “But through NAPCA, they provided me with job trainings, so I know how to use a computer today.”

Today, 90 percent of SCSEP participants are immigrants who speak little-to-no English. What becomes inspiring for others to witness are each participants’ eagerness to work and be engaged with meaningful job opportunities regardless of their age.

“This is a great opportunity for seniors to help other people in the community, especially in the low-income and non-English speaking population,” says Angelo Locsin, special projects manager at NAPCA. “It’s very inspiring to see seniors not even considering their end of life, but still giving back to the community.”

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DSHS), in 2009, Asian Americans age 65 and older made up 1.3 million of the elder population in 2007. By 2050, Asian American elders are projected to account for 6.8 million. Despite such growth, NAPCA reports that the needs of this aging population are not well-researched and being addressed by public policies, hence the lack of resources and culturally relevant and responsive services for the aging APIAA population.

Like Orbeta, she had no U.S. employment history and relied on the support of her Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — a federally funded program that provides monthly stipends to low-income people who are 65 years of age or older, blind or disabled. In order for Orbeta to meet all the eligibility requirements for SSI, she needed to prove that she had enough income to qualify.

“I needed two quarters [more of an income] to be eligible for SSI,” says Orbeta. “I’m so thankful for NAPCA because they provided me with a non-subsidized job so at least I can earn something to qualify.”

Orbeta’s energy, drive and dedication to serve others today come from her assertiveness to seek and ask others for support.

“I found out about NAPCA through other people. That’s how I started,” says Orbeta. “People would tell me to go here and go there. I wasn’t afraid to ask for help, and it was through exchanging of ideas that [I was able to come] here.”
Orbeta encourages other seniors to not be afraid as well.

“Seniors should have guts to ask questions,” says Orbeta. “By staying at home, nothing will help. Try to knock. Be more aggressive to ask for help. I believe many seniors lack the initiative to go out by themselves because they don’t think they can tackle whatever they need.”

With a sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, Orbeta has become the voice of many seniors who benefited from the services at NAPCA. Instead of allowing their age to dictate their circumstances, seniors like Orbeta are actively engaging themselves with the community and committed to complete training so they can gain employable skills to apply towards other opportunities.

“I really admire Elna for her initiative and drive,” says Locsin. “She always has a positive attitude about everything. Whatever you throw at her, she works her hardest. It’s that kind of resourcefulness and initiative that is very inspiring.”

Orbeta’s story is one that reminds us that the aging population adds immense depth and richness to this country. The wisdom instilled to the younger population and their vigilance to strive towards living a meaningful life deserves recognition and acknowledgement.

“NAPCA is my home,” says Orbeta. “They have taught me to defend my rights and my privileges while helping others.”

And NAPCA has become a home for many other seniors that have empowered other seniors to be a voice for others.

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