Each weekday morning while most of us rush to get ready for work or help our children get ready for school, a cadre of compassionate volunteers are worried about one thing and one thing only: feeding elderly Jefferson County residents who otherwise wouldn’t get a hot meal.
I remember hearing about Meals On Wheels when I was just a child. One of my great aunts living in Florida was a Meals On Wheels volunteer into her 80s, until she was no longer physically able.
As Meals On Wheels of Jefferson County deals with a leaner budget thanks to fewer dollars from the United Way, I decide to visit the program’s headquarters at Charles Town Presbyterian Church to learn more about their important work.
When I arrive in the busy church kitchen at 9:10 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, I’m met by a symphony of sight, smells and sound: Volunteers who’ve become friends saying “good morning” to each other; a line of delivery bags on long tables waiting to be filled with hot meals; the smell of meatloaf and mashed potatoes wafting in the air; and the sounds of dishes clanking and friends chatting and laughing.
I see Alice Cook, Meals On Wheels’ perfectly named part-time cook, standing at the stove, readying the day’s meals. Next I glance at Pat Higgs and Peggy Turner, quietly chatting in the corner, awaiting our talk before starting to pack meals into bags for the drivers.
Then I spot Patsy Morgan-Runkles, who works part-time as the administrative assistant for Meals On Wheels. She greets me and then turns to answer the phone in her sweetest of voices: “Meals On Wheels, can I help you? Hey honey…”
I spoke first to Peggy, who has volunteered here for three years. “I retired, I wanted something to do,” she explained. “I have a couple of friends here, we like the camaraderie.”
Part of Peggy’s job is to read each client’s order, seeing if he or she needs a standard or diabetic meal, with or without bread and butter, and whether the requested beverage is coffee, tea or milk.
Like many of the volunteers here, Peggy has a personal connection to the organization.
“I have a sister who gets Meals On Wheels,” she said. “She lives alone. I know how grateful she is for them.”
She paused, reflecting more on why she volunteers for the nonprofit. “In the beginning, it was more to just get me out of the house. But now … it’s more about me doing God’s work.”
While the principle goal of Meals On Wheels is to deliver a hot meal to those in need, Peggy points out that the drivers actually do more than just deliver food.
“There was a lady next door to me,” she said. “I’d see her walk her dog every day. One day, a Meals On Wheels volunteer couldn’t get in. The volunteer got a key from neighbor. They found out the lady had fallen and couldn’t call for help.
“So many of these people live alone, I’ve heard that some are incapacitated in some way. The Meals On Wheels volunteer may be only person they see all day.”
Pat, who works side by side with Peggy filling orders for meals and prepping bags for delivery, decided to volunteer here seven years ago after reading the organization needed more help.
“My mother had died,” she said. “She had worked here. I decided to take my mother’s place.”
How has the work affected her? “Well, it makes you glad you’re of service to someone,” said Pat, smiling. “It’s just about your love for other people. You can help them. You know that one day you might need these services yourself.”
Next I spoke to Patsy, who works as a scheduler/office administrator four mornings a week, sharing the job with another woman who works Friday mornings only.
Patsy has a million-dollar smile and a patient demeanor. She also runs an organized ship, scheduling a roster of more than 60 active volunteers (12 are needed daily), creating and mailing bills, processing applications, talking to clients and their families, even giving directions on how to get to clients’ homes.
A former graphics analyst for the CIA, the Harpers Ferry resident started working at Meals On Wheels after she retired. “It opens my eyes to see the needs of the community,” she said.
Next, I sat down with Meals On Wheels board president Roger Dailey, the man I’d watched earlier moving around the room like a caring papa bear, making sure everyone had what they needed and offering words of encouragement.
Roger started as a volunteer packer 10 years ago, not long after he retired from the National Institutes of Health as a computer systems analyst. He’d long been familiar with Meals On Wheels.
“My mother and my aunt worked at Meals On Wheels when it first started in Jefferson County in 1980,” he said. “I guess I followed in their footsteps.”
Roger said he’s always volunteered in the community in some capacity.
“I was born and raised here in Jefferson County,” he said. “[This] is a way of paying back the community. It’s neighbors taking care of neighbors. At some points in our lives we sometimes need a hand up. There’s a lot of help in Jefferson County if you know who to ask.
“It’s a very caring community.”
Roger said Meals On Wheels prepares and delivers 14,000+ meals a year to Jefferson Countians. Though each meal and beverage costs more than $7 to prepare, the program typically charges clients $4.50 or less, depending on what they are able to pay.
Meals On Wheels gets no government funding and depends instead on donations and grants, he said. This year, a drastic reduction in United Way funding has Meals On Wheels facing a $12,000 gap in its 2014 budget.
After talking with Roger, with the meals now packed and ready to go, I’m invited to ride with volunteer deliverywoman Signe Garms. With meals, a list of clients and directions to their homes in hand, we and the other drivers head out.
As I help Signe navigate to our four stops for the day, I learn that she is a former nutritionist who moved here eight years ago from Iceland with her husband, Peter. They began volunteering with Meals On Wheels three years ago.
“It’s always been an organization close to my heart,” she said. “For single people to cook when they are elderly – it’s very hard,” she said. “Meals On Wheels gives them a protein, a fruit, a vegetable. It’s a balanced meal. It’s probably the only balanced meal they get in a day.”
We soon arrive at the home of Janine and Preston Brown.
Preston has used a wheelchair for five years and also has challenges talking and eating. Battling Lou Gehrig’s disease since 2007, he also has a positive attitude and a kind smile. He stresses that while he has great weakness in his body, he feels no pain.
“It’s hard for me to comb my hair, to eat,” he said. “The next step for me may be feeding tubes.”
His wife of nearly 25 years, Jeanine, struggles with sciatic and back pain but serves as his chief caregiver. Getting a hot meal delivered at lunchtime “has helped us out a lot,” she said.
“The meals are very good,” Preston says, smiling. “Generous helpings.”
While they appreciate the food, their eyes light up when I ask them about the volunteers who deliver their meals Monday through Friday.
“Almost all of the volunteers ask us if they can do anything for us,” said Preston.
Jeanine adds: “One of the volunteers has hummingbirds. She brings us hummingbird food that she makes. Then Preston can watch the hummingbirds eat out the window. Another volunteer – he’s a sweetie. He comes in smiling and says loudly, ‘It’s Friday!’ He’s happy and he likes to talk a little bit. It’s such a blessing.”
Their friends Dorcas and Glenn Ramsburg first encouraged them to get Meals On Wheels when Preston was diagnosed with the progressive neurodegenerative disease.
When asked what he would say to those thinking about helping Meals On Wheels, Preston said: “I’d encourage others to volunteer if they’re physically able. It’s something I’d do if I could.”
Preston’s words reminded me of my great aunt who’d volunteered for so long in Orlando.
When I was a young girl, she’d tell me stories about how helping feed those in need had changed her. I never even grasped her words. Never understood exactly what she meant.
But as I drove home from my morning with Meals On Wheels volunteers and clients, their words dancing in my head, I realized this is about so much more than just food.
Being hungry for lunch myself, I head home feeling grateful — for my ability to drive, to be able to prepare a meal for myself and my children, for so many other blessings.
And I thought, Aunt Katherine, I finally understand.
– Jen Watland is a freelance writer who attends Asbury United Methodist
Church in Charles Town
Want to know more?
n Meals On Wheels of Jefferson County accepts one-time or on-going donations. Mail checks to Meals on Wheels of Jefferson County,
P.O. Box 565,
Charles Town 25414. The group also is looking for additional volunteers. To learn more, call 304-725-1601 or find the nonprofit on Facebook.
n Meals on Wheels will host its annual fall soup and sandwich fundraiser from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 5 inside Charles Town Presbyterian Church, 100 N. Mildred St.
Menu items will include hot dogs, steamers, bean soup and vegetable soup. An indoor yard sale also is planned.
n Meals On Wheels’ first gala fundraiser happens from 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 9 at Asbury United Methodist Church’s Asbury Center at 110 W. North St. in Charles Town.
With a theme of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” the evening will include a showing of the movie “Return to Oz,” a moon bounce, nachos and other snacks, music from the Jefferson High School Jazz Ensemble, a silent auction, door prizes and more. The cost of admission ($3 for kids 11 and younger; $10 for those older) includes a ticket for prize drawings. For more information, call 304-620-2723 or email MealsOnWheelsJC@gmail.com.