It is Wednesday morning and the basement of Catonsville United Methodist Church on Melvin Avenue is alive with activity.
Bob Goodman and Leighann Ruark are two of eight volunteers with the Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland office getting ready to deliver meals to homebound residents of Arbutus, Catonsville and Relay.
The volunteers pick up insulated coolers full of hot packaged meals that have been prepared in the organization's commercial kitchen at 515 S. Haven St. in Baltimore City.
But Meals on Wheels, founded by a group of Baltimore women in 1960, does more than just deliver more than one million nourishing meals to 2,598 residents in eight Maryland counties, as it did in 2013.
The organization also provides the nourishment of daily connections to other people, thanks to an army of volunteers, who not only deliver the food but provide a set of watchful eyes checking for signs of illness of homebound recipients or dangers in their homes.
"The majority of the people that you visit, the only contact they're going to have all day is you," said Goodman, who volunteers five days a week. "You get to know them and after a while, you can walk in and tell if there's something wrong."
The organization provides hot meals to residents of all walks of life, whether they're elderly, injured or disabled.
Because the meals are served hot, clients don't have to turn on a stove, which can be dangerous in some situations.
Liz Roberts said there's a common misconception that the program only serves those with low incomes or are too old to take care of themselves.
"As long as you're homebound, you can use this service," said Roberts, site coordinator for the organization's Catonsville office for 16 years."You don't have to be [low-income] or elderly, you just have to be temporarily homebound."
While the program is offered to anyone who is temporarily disabled, it targets seniors, said Debbie Brown, an organization spokeswoman.
"We're not a catering service, we're here to ensure seniors can live secure lives," Brown said.
Last year, 165,399 meals were served to 754 residents of Baltimore County.
Roberts said many clients may not have any other visitors all week and look forward to seeing the volunteers.
"They know who's coming and they look for them at the door," Roberts said.
Goodman said volunteers look out for residents who are unable to leave their homes. They check to make sure their utilities are working and that clients show no marks or signs of injury after a fall.
Roberts said the program's ability to check on residents at their homes, sets it apart from other meal delivery services.
"Really, that's the most important thing out of this," Roberts said
Some volunteers make deliveries in pairs, keeping each other company, while others go by themselves.
Delivery routes vary. Some make three stops while others stop at additional homes.
Volunteers serve 42 clients on 10 different routes five days a week. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are the busiest days.
Some individuals who require meals for the weekend have additional meals delivered on Friday for the weekend.
Emergency meal kits that consist of frozen meals and canned foods are sent to clients in advance of snow days.
Roberts has a rule that volunteers won't deliver meals when snow hasn't been cleared. Many of her volunteers are seniors themselves, and she doesn't want them to get hurt, she said.
More than 90 percent of their clients are over age 60, but they serve clients of all ages.
The organization charges $75 a week for two meals delivered five days a week. Low-income individuals are eligible for a subsidy, which reduces the cost of the program.
They lost $250,000 due to cuts to the Older American Act funding for their program, according to a statement issued by Jonathan Wachs, president of the board of directors.
While the cuts have made it difficult for the program to subsidize the price of meals for clients, the organization will not turn anyone away, Brown said.
"People can always call and we will work with them," Brown said.
On their third stop of the day, Goodman and Ruark deliver meals to Jane Lafferty, 59, at the YWCA Permanent Supportive Housing in Arbutus.
They greet Lafferty with a hug and stop to chat.
"They're so nice to me," Lafferty said. "This program makes me realize how good some people can be to others."
Audrey Knode, of Relay, usually volunteers Fridays and said she gives everyone she visits a hug.
"It's nice to provide people cheer. I try to make people happy and give them encouragement," said Knode, 87, who started volunteering three years ago. "A lot of time they're by themselves all day."
Knode said her husband died four years ago and so empathizes with many of the clients who live alone.
"Everybody keeps coming because it is the number one volunteer experience where you get to see the results of your volunteering efforts," Roberts said. "You know that you actually gave food to someone to keep them going that day."
Cathy Fu, a volunteer from Catonsville, said her three children, ages 11 to 16, join her on deliveries in the summer.
"The clients really get a kick out of the kids," Fu said.
Fu said the program is a learning experience for her children.
"It enables them to see people as people. I think it's a valuable experience," Fu said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun