Students with the Berkeley Student Cooperative clean a senior’s home as part of a service project. Photo: Stephen McNally/UC Berkeley

Zach Gamlieli, a UC Berkeley senior, and three friends spent a sunny afternoon this fall weed-whacking, raking and pruning their way through Peter White’s South Berkeley yard.

White, 79, lives alone and struggles to keep up with the pruning and weeds, so he turned to Gamlieli and the Berkeley Student Cooperative, a nonprofit affordable campus housing co-op, for help.

Through a new student-led program called “Helping Berkeley Seniors in Their Homes,” Gamlieli was able to round up fellow co-op students eager to spend an afternoon cleaning up White’s back garden.

“We take our students who already owe hours to the community and we partner them with seniors in South Berkeley who are too old or lack the physicality to take care of their own property,” said Gamlieli, who is also president of UC Berkeley’s co-op system. “What we’re trying to do is let them age in place, so they can maintain independence.”

Since the program started this fall, it has helped roughly 35 of Berkeley seniors garden, declutter, check smoke alarm batteries and program complicated electronics. Another 40 seniors are on a waiting list for help. The program is partnership with city of Berkeley and supported by Chancellor Carol Christ’s Community Partnership Fund, which contributed $10,000 for tools and other expenses.

“This fills a huge need,” said Shallon Allen, who works in community services with the city of Berkeley. “City workers can’t work on private property, and we just don’t have enough nonprofits to work with this population. There is a larger need than we realize.”

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Video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally/UC Berkeley

The co-ops, as they’re known on campus, house some 1,300 students in 20 houses and apartment buildings across Berkeley. Each resident must complete five hours of community service projects each semester.

The students posted a sign-up sheet for seniors at a South Berkeley senior center in September, and have also visited Redwood Gardens, a cooperative senior living community on Derby Street. Trained students visit each home to evaluate the request and make sure student volunteers will be safe and bring the right tools. Serious issues can be referred to code enforcement officers or social workers with the city’s Aging Services Division.

Ruby Zalduondo, a sophomore linguistics major and resident of the Casa Zimbabwe co-op, said she was drawn to the project because she worked with seniors while she was in high school.

“There are a lot of gaps in services for elderly people, and often they get stuck in their homes,” Zalduondo said. “This is just another opportunity to help senior citizens.”

The project has also has the benefit of encouraging students to socialize with seniors, who are often eager to talk and tell stories.

“It helps some of these seniors who feel isolated,” Gamlieli said. “I get to meet seniors and learn about their history. Sometimes I’ve met people that lived in my co-op house back when they were students at Cal.”

Zalduondo said that after helping one senior declutter his hallway, she noticed he had lots of old computers and radios in his attic. She’s now trying to find electrical engineering students who can go over and talk to the man about his hobby, and help him donate or recycle some of the equipment

In December, the co-op students will help 20 residents at Redwood Gardens declutter their apartments. And later this month the group will work with Berkeley’s rowing team to clean up three homes in South Berkeley, Zalduondo said.

“We’re going to get some good work out of them; they’re going to provide the brawn that we’ve been lacking,” Zalduondo said.

As for the afternoon of gardening, White, a 1960 Berkeley graduate, smiled as sat on his porch and watched Gamlieli and Zalduondo weed-whack his ivy into submission.

“I feel great about this,” he said. “Now I can plant, which I do every year. I’d like to stay in this house forever, until I die. I couldn’t do it without this help.”

This article was first published by UC Berkeley News.