ERNC distributes safety whistles to Asian American senior neighbors

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Margaret Irwin, elder director of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council (ERNC), poses with the safety whistles she distributes in front of Gilman Fountain at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Nov. 14, 2021. Madalyn Cruz/The Occidental

In the summer of 2021, the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council (ERNC) funded the purchase of about 400 safety whistles. Margaret Irwin, elder director the ERNC, said she distributed about 200 of them that summer at senior housing buildings with large Asian American populations in Eagle Rock and Highland Park.

Irwin said this program was initiated after an incident in July 2020 when she saw a man on Colorado Boulevard riding his bike, who appeared to be in his 30s, screaming at a Filipino American man who appeared to be in his 70s.

“The white guy on the bike was yelling at him, ‘You’re killing Americans. You’re killing Americans,’” Irwin said. “And the senior gentleman kept his head down.”

In 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 76 percent in LA County, according to the LA County Commission on Human Relations, worrying and saddening NELA residents. Inspired by national efforts to distribute whistles and her feelings of sadness after witnessing the incident on Colorado Boulevard, Irwin said she asked the ERNC to fund this program.

“If nothing else, blowing a whistle is an annoyance. If it doesn’t bring anyone to help you, it will annoy the person yelling at you at the very least,” Irwin said. “But I would like to think that it’s something that will bring attention to someone around.”

Margaret Irwin, elder director of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council (ERNC), poses with the safety whistles she distributes in front of Gilman Fountain at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Nov. 14, 2021. Madalyn Cruz/The Occidental

According to Irwin, the ERNC hosted a Hollaback! bystander training in response to what she witnessed; the training taught the option of distraction in a similar instance since distraction can break up the moment. She said although the idea originated as a response to anti-Asian hate, it offers support for every vulnerable person and community.

“If all the communities stand together in solidarity and support, then a community is not standing vulnerable,” Irwin said.

A resident at one senior housing building that received ERNC whistles, Rebecca*, said she carries a whistle with her on a keychain wherever she goes.

“[With a whistle] you can call attention to a crowd that you are in distress and need help,” Rebecca said. “No man is an island. So we have to look out for one another.”

Rebecca said it would be even better if the ERNC whistles were louder because there are seniors in her building without potentially life-saving medical alarm necklaces, including herself. She said she is often the person who calls 911 when there is an emergency in her building.

“One time there was a lady here who fell down, and she didn’t have any alarm. She phoned her neighbor, and the neighbor couldn’t go to her, so the neighbor called us,” Rebecca said. “She was slumped on the floor, and we forced open the door and were able to call 911.”

According to Rebecca, giving out the whistles was a nice gesture by the ERNC; however, some people might be more willing to carry their whistle if they learn its value first.

“The thing is, if [the seniors] don’t understand the usefulness of [the whistle] it’s nothing to them,” Rebecca said. “I have a few friends who I already shared this [information] with. I said, in my time in the Philippines, this was very useful because if somebody is lost, for example, with hiking activities, we use the whistle to call attention.”

Rebecca said receiving an ERNC whistle was memorable for her. According to Irwin, distributing them was a way to let seniors know that people in their community care about them.

“All anybody wants is to feel like you’re not alone in this world,” Irwin said.

The whistles can mean a lot to seniors, according to Denise Virgen, a services coordinator at a senior housing building that received whistles.

“[The whistle] means that someone cares for them, that someone is thinking about their safety,” Virgen said. “We could all help by expressing acts of kindness like the gift of the whistle.”

According to Irwin, she plans to help distribute free meals on Thanksgiving to seniors in NELA, underwritten by two Eagle Rock businesses: Keyes Real Estate and Super Copy. Irwin said every senior meal will come with a safety whistle, and that she intends to continue distributing the whistles in the future.

*Rebecca’s last name was omitted to protect her personal safety.