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Sally’s Fund: A homegrown lifeline to seniors

Written by SAMANTHA WASHER

“The bridge between isolation and community” is how Rachael Berger, Sally’s Fund managing director, describes the work her organization does for seniors in Laguna Beach. You’ve undoubtedly seen the cars with the Sally’s Fund logo driving around town. The group’s mission is to provide transportation and other essential services for Laguna Beach seniors to enhance the quality of their lives. Note the words “other essential services.” These words are what set Sally’s Fund apart from a transportation service like Uber or Lyft, and also what makes it a vital part of Laguna’s community fabric.

It only takes a few people to make a big difference

The group was founded in 1982 when several local community members realized how many seniors were being forced into institutional living because of a lack of transportation. Walter von Gremp, one of those founding members, was moved to take action after reading stories in the local paper detailing the struggle some of his neighbors had while trying to stay in their homes. 

Another key member of this new group was Liz Gapp. Gapp volunteered her time and her station wagon. However, it didn’t take long for the demand to exceed what she could do on her own. Realizing the need was even greater than initially thought, Walter von Gremp and his wife Ann provided “significant financial support” to the organization, which was able to hire some part-time employees as a result. This new, more formal organization became Sally’s Fund, named in honor of Walter von Gremp’s mother.

Sallys Fund von Gremps

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Ann and Walter von Gremp were instrumental in starting Sally’s Fund. Ann von Gremp is treasurer of the organization.

Amazingly, 36 years later, Liz Gapp is still a vital part of Sally’s Fund, as is Ann von Gremp. Sadly, Walter von Gremp’s health prevents him from being as active as he once was. Nevertheless, the group is as vibrant as ever.

A new hire helps modernize which helps outreach

A relatively recent reason for the group’s success is its new managing director Rachael Berger, who was hired in January of this year. Berger, who previously had a successful career with American Express, is a 27-year resident of Laguna and sought out this part-time position in order to be able to give back to the community. “I found out this is definitely not a part-time position,” she says good-naturedly. “They were still operating like they did 36 years ago – no dispatch!” she says in mock disbelief. So, one of the first things Berger did was put together a Google Docs scheduling system that expanded the group’s outreach from 37 people to 147 people. “It’s not rocket science,” she says modestly. “It’s just amazing how much of a need there is.”

More than just a transportation service

The premise is simple. If you are 55 years old or older, you can call Sally’s Fund and ask to arrange a ride within a 40-mile radius. Medical appointments take precedence, but drivers will take people to the store or even deliver food to their homes. 

The City of Laguna Beach, which covers roughly one third of Sally’s Fund’s expenses, was recently considering cutting that funding in favor of Uber or Lyft services.    

Berger explains, “Our drivers will sit in with a patient at a doctor’s appointment, so they can take good notes and talk to the Care Management Center. Uber or Lyft doesn’t do that.” 

The Care Management Center is run through the Susi Q where, according to their website, “care managers assess needs and create individualized action plans.” Sally’s Fund is also run out of the Susi Q, but it is a separate entity. However, Laguna Beach Seniors, the Care Management Team and Sally’s Fund all work symbiotically to help Laguna Beach seniors stay independent as long as possible.

Sallys Fund van

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The Sally’s Fund van picks up seniors at the Susi Q

“Seventy-five percent of our people have no one else,” says Berger. “We are a bridge. We take people who can’t drive to see their loved ones. We will even take them to see different assisted living facilities. Additionally, we do home visitations. Some of our folks are so frail they’re home bound and need extra care. Liz (Gapp) will talk with them and find out their needs.”

Securing another vehicle is critical

According to Berger, Sally’s Fund is turning down two to three people a week because they are at maximum capacity. “We’re trying to secure another vehicle,” she says. The group’s Prius just died after 177,000 miles. And their Dodge Caravan is on its last legs with 144,000 miles. So, Berger is busily writing grant applications trying to secure funding. “I’ve got additional drivers who’d love the work if we got a new car,” she says.

Funded by donations

“We never ask for payment from our riders,” explains Berger. “We ask for a donation, if they can manage it. There are so many people in Laguna who don’t have access. They can’t walk the block or two to the bus stop and we’re an aging population.” The two thirds of the budget that the City doesn’t cover is made up by private donations, like the $25,000 local philanthropist Bill Gross recently donated. 

Ann von Gremp runs a tight ship

According to Berger, Sally’s Fund runs a tight ship. The group’s treasurer is Ann von Gremp. “She’s one tough cookie,” says Berger admiringly. “She’s a penny pincher.” Such thriftiness means the organization carries no debt while it provides over 6,000 one-way trips annually. But helping get their riders where they need to go is only part of the mission. “We help them navigate within their destination,” explains Berger.

Sallys Fund shopping trip

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The Sally’s Fund van unloads at the Susi Q after a shopping trip to Trader Joe’s

And then there are the above and beyond things the group does because its people have developed relationships with their riders. Berger tells me she was able to secure a “new” (not really new, but a gently used) mattress for a rider who has cancer. “He was sleeping on springs,” she says ruefully. “I got the mattress for $50, and now I just need to find someone to help me get it to him. I encounter things like this every day. This is such an amazing place because you’re really making a difference.” 

Maintaining mobility is maintaining dignity

Berger has heard first hand, the countless times that seniors, once deprived of their mobility, feel they are robbed of their dignity. Sally’s Fund is a homegrown effort to prevent that loss of self-worth. For 36 years, the group has succeeded in helping seniors stay in their homes, as well as providing a connection to the outside world. And while they do a valiant job of trying to reach everyone, there are still seniors they simply can’t accommodate. So, seeing as this is the giving season, should you be looking to donate to a community-based group that is doing good work, remember Sally’s Fund. 

Donations can be sent to Sally’s Fund, PO Box 1626, LB, CA 92652 or made online at http://sallysfund.org/my-donation.