Interested in curbing hunger?
To become a volunteer driver, you must be at least 18 years old, own a valid driver’s license, and be willing to attend an orientation and training session. No experience is needed and the agency will find the best match for your route and service location.
To volunteer, make a donation, or request deliver service, contact Meals on Wheels of NWI at 756-3663, email info@MealsOnWheelsNWIndiana.org, or visit 8446 Virginia St. in Merrillville.
Updated: August 20, 2013 11:08PM
Jim Wilson rang the lobby buzzer inside a building at The Residences at Merrillville Lakes senior living complex.
“Good morning, it’s Meals on Wheels,” the 73-year-old Merrillville man said through an intercom to Cailena Amos, an elderly woman who was waiting for lunch last Friday morning.
“Come on up,” she told Wilson, who’s a volunteer delivery driver for Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana.
Wilson, a retired prison guard at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, carried a hot lunch and a cold drink to Amos’ fourth floor apartment. She was there waiting for him, along with her daughter, Jessica Amos.
“Lunch is here,” Wilson told the mother and daughter.
“Oh, she loves you guys,” Jessica Amos replied as her mother took the meal from Wilson. “I hear more about Meals on Wheels’ delivery drivers than about anybody else in my mom’s life. You guys are like my eyes and ears here.”
Cailena Amos, who’s been receiving delivered meals for three years, has vision troubles, so cooking alone is not an option anymore. Her daughter is a Meals on Wheels board member and an advocate for senior citizen nutrition.
“She doesn’t cook for herself as much so she needs to eat nutritious meals,” Jessica Amos told Wilson, who had a dozen other meals to deliver that morning.
He volunteers his time, efforts, and vehicle each Friday for three of four hours, depending on how much he talks to each client. Or how much they talk to him.
“Some of them really like to talk,” he told me after we left the senior living complex.
Meals on Wheels drivers deliver not only meals each day, but also camaraderie and a sense of connection with the outside world. Half of the agency’s clients say the delivery volunteer is the only person they see on some days.
Last week, I wondered how some of these clients in need will be affected by the sequester budget cuts, which are starting to kick in for such agencies across the country.
“There is no simple answer, we are just not sure yet,” replied Sandra Noe, the agency’s executive director.
“Frankly, the demand and need has never been greater for nutritious meals to help manage health conditions and have a positive impact on our seniors’ quality of life,” Noe said. “But the fact of the matter is we are serving fewer meals to those in need.”
This is due, in part, to the current funding appropriation for nutrition in the Older Americans Act, which has been stagnant.
No one denied service
A few weeks ago, the national Meals On Wheels Association of America learned from the Administration on Aging (which is responsible for overseeing Older Americans Act programs) that the impact of the sequester is even more dire than originally expected.
Noe and other agency directors braced themselves for an across-the-board 5 percent cut in funding starting March 1. But then they learned that figure would be 5.6 percent.
The state-specific budgets will not be released until later this month, but it’s estimated that Indiana will lose at least $700,000 in Older American Act nutrition funding in this fiscal year.
“Our board of directors is working hard to raise the critical dollars to support these individuals’ meal cost,” said Noe, whose agency’s motto is “so no senior goes hungry.
As a private not-for-profit, the agency is different from many other Meals on Wheels programs. It provides meals to the homebound elderly and disabled who are private pay, as well as to clients whose meals are funded by the Older Americans Act.
Those public-fund cases are managed by Northwest Indiana Community Action, this region’s Area Agency on Aging.
“Our senior population here is growing, and both our private pay and funded clients have been affected by the economic downturn in our country over the past several years,” Noe said.
These facts alone have greatly increased the number of NWI seniors on waiting lists for the state and federal nutrition funding. This was already happening before the sequester cuts kicked in, although one in nine American seniors is at risk of hunger on a daily basis.
The Merrillville-based agency delivers roughly 1,600 meals Monday through Friday, according to Joan Vith, the agency’s volunteer manager. On Friday morning, she made sure that volunteer driver Jim Wilson had his white Ford F150 pickup truck loaded with meals in the agency’s drive-through port.
“This is our busy time,” she told me as Wilson checked his delivery route, one of five in the Merrillville area alone.
“I love what I do,” said Wilson, whose truck carried two coolers, one for hot food and one for cold drinks and snacks.
There are no special requirements to start the Meals on Wheels service. Most clients live alone or don’t have the ability to shop or prepare a meal by conventional means. Each hot lunch meal costs $4.25, though no one is denied service for financial reasons.
“It’s a godsend, it really is,” Cailena Amos told me after receiving her lunch. (To watch a video of the delivery, visit www.post-trib.com.)
Before parting ways with Wilson, I told him it may take a godsend to continue this service to all the seniors in need across the region.
Listen to Jerry’s “Casual Fridays” radio show each Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.lakeshorepublicmedia.org.