By Ryan Richardson
WEBB CITY, Mo. —
Near the end of their route, Bob Taylor and Connie Cook dropped off a hot meal for Wanda Austin.
Taylor shared a joke with her when they met at the door as Cook took the meal in.
A bond is shared among the three. Austin is a former Meals on Wheels volunteer who delivered meals to homebound seniors for 22 years. It’s still a community in which she wants to be involved, despite having to stop volunteering.
“I don’t know what I’d do without them,” Austin said of the volunteers. “When my husband got sick, I couldn’t keep cooking and taking care of him. It was a program that I helped with for so long, and then they were helping us tremendously.
“The senior center and what they do becomes our community within our community for us. This is our social life, and it’s so important for everyone to keep this going.”
But that is becoming more difficult to do.
Stephanie Denham, nutrition director for the Area Agency on Aging office in Joplin, said the Meals on Wheels program delivers hot lunches each weekday to more than 1,500 seniors in a four-county area. To keep the program operating, Denham said, the agency depends on two things: volunteers and funding.
“Everything we do is volunteer-driven and donation-supported. We need both of those to keep these programs thriving,” Denham said. “During this time of year, donations spike up, but our volunteers go really low due to other commitments. It puts a crunch on our existing routes, and we have to keep getting new volunteers to keep it going.”
About 50 volunteers now cover the homebound routes in Jasper, Newton, Barton and McDonald counties. Denham said the agency could use twice that number.
Because of the shortage of volunteers, Denham said, the agency may soon have to put together a waiting list for seniors.
Funding is another challenge.
Although the Area Agency on Aging has not undergone any federal or state funding cuts, it hasn’t had increases since 2009, she said. Meanwhile, groceries and other costs have risen.
Denham said that’s why donations are even more important. Meals for seniors cost between $6 and $6.50 each, according to the agency, which asks for a donation from recipients of $3 per meal. The average donation is around $1, but no seniors are turned away because they cannot pay.
The agency also is asking area businesses if they would be willing to “adopt” seniors to help cover the rising costs.
“There really is only so much to go around,” Denham said. “It really will come down to an increase in corporate sponsorship and families helping other families. As it stands, we will have an increase of 25,000 meals this year that we don’t have the funding for.”
Jerri Sargent is director of the Webb City Senior Center, which provides 90 outbound meals a day to Austin and other seniors. Sargent said the decline in volunteer drivers has been an issue as far back as September.
“We had a sharp increase in homebound clients then, and we knew we would need more drivers,” she said. “We try to keep the routes small and close together so that our volunteers can complete them quickly and so our seniors aren’t waiting too long. There have been times that we’ve had to call the Webb City Police Department to see if they could spare people because we’ve been so low on drivers.
“It’s less than a gallon of gas and an hour of volunteer service for something that truly makes a difference in someone’s life.”
Denham said boosting the number of volunteers prevents burnout and overuse of a small number of people.
“If we have volunteers that have to take a break from volunteering, then it puts the rest of the staff in such a bind,” she said. “It would be wonderful if we could get a regular staff of volunteers who are able to get the routes down to one or two deliveries a week.”
‘LIKE Family to me’
Taylor is a retired truck driver in Webb City who has been going to the senior center for more than 10 years. Cook, a retired registered nurse, meets him daily at the Webb City Senior Center, and they work the Meals on Wheels route together.
For both of the longtime volunteers, it’s more than just delivering a warm meal.
“I get to know the same route, and they become like family to me,” Taylor said. “You don’t just go and give them a meal. You visit with them. You make sure that they are OK. You end up making their day for them.”
Cook said the volunteers also could be in a position to save someone’s life.
“We’ve had to call in wellness checks before because someone isn’t home,” she said. “There have been times when someone is in their home and they’ve just taken a nasty fall. Sometimes they could be there for too long, and who knows what could happen?”
Taylor and Cook are typical of many of those who volunteer for the Meals on Wheels program: Many of the drivers are drawn from regular attendees of the local senior centers.
“These people are our friends, and sometimes they can’t get out of the house anymore,” Taylor said. “We might even be in their same spot one day.”
Want to help?
PEOPLE WHO ARE INTERESTED in volunteering may contact the Area Agency of Aging’s Joplin office at 417-781-7562 to be directed to a local center. Stephanie Denham, nutrition director for the agency, said volunteers can be used in other programs, too.
“WE ALWAYS APPRECIATE the help because we are so dependent on them,” Denham said. “We want them to know that there are seniors in the area who would more than appreciate the time that someone can give to them.”