This was Community Champions Week for Meals on Wheels.
Among the Community Champions accompanying Northampton County Meals on Wheels volunteers on their deliveries this week were Mario Andretti; Ferrous; political, community and business leaders; Bethlehem policemen on horseback … and me.
Clearly, some champions are more exciting than others. But the real champs are the amazing volunteers who make all this work.
I spent a couple of hours with one of them, Patrick Landon, who delivers a wide-ranging Hellertown-based route every Thursday and fills in routinely on other routes. Here's how it works.
The day's volunteer drivers show up every weekday around 10 a.m., gather for any instructions and then pick up their hot packs and coolers. There are 50 routes in Northampton County and the Bethlehem section of Lehigh County.
Once we loaded up his car, Landon plugged in the heating unit that keeps the hot food warm. Thursday's menu included a luncheon hot tray, a "white bag" with bread and fruit, and an unheated clear bag with turkey breast and other stuff for dinner. Clients receive some combination of these, sometimes prepared specially to meet their dietary needs.
Since Meals on Wheels prepares about 600 meals a day for distribution in its home network and more than 1,000 for units in Lehigh and Monroe, getting that food ready and sorted requires tremendous coordination.
Landon, a retiree who started delivering meals last July, knows his route and his clients, but his clipboard includes travel directions and instructions about how each client likes his/her food delivered.
For example, a client's name might be accompanied by "Hot Tray, Clear Bag special," which means one generic hot meal and a specially prepared clear bag marked with the client's name. It includes directions for how to make the delivery, such as "ring bell and wait" or "please bring in newspaper and mail for client."
Part of the job is ensuring that folks are OK. Meals on Wheels of Northampton County Executive Director JoAnn Nenow said, "Our volunteers have saved people. They've called ambulances. We had a volunteer who smelled gas and called UGI. That daily check is very important."
Janet Soos, director of volunteer outreach and coordination, told me one volunteer during a heat wave last summer noticed a client who didn't seem quite right. Her family was alerted, and she ended up in the hospital with dehydration.
The organization does an initial assessment for each client, and a case manager checks back once a year, but in between, these volunteers may be the only ones seeing these elderly people regularly. Landon told me he and his wife delivered on Christmas Day and found they were the only visitors some of these folks had over the holidays.
Our first client this day was Caroline Klotz of Hellertown, who at age 72 still runs Klotz's Bait Shop out of her home. Since her husband died several years ago, she need the meals because arthritis makes it difficult for her to cook. "They're wonderful," she told me. "Friendly and very good."
I heard similar comments from other clients we met. "You become their friend," Landon explained.
In many cases, he just rings the bell, walks in and calls "Meals on Wheels!" In others, there are caregivers who meet us at the door. And while some of the homes were modest, a couple were in well-to-do neighborhoods.
Nenow said the program isn't based on financial need. Some clients pay the entire cost of their meals The focus is on allowing people to continue living independently when they can't cook for themselves anymore. "We can help you stay in your home as long as possible," she said.
If you think you had trouble getting around this winter, imagine what it was like delivering Meals on Wheels, in many cases to homes in which driveways and paths hadn't been cleared. Landon showed me one place where he had to park in the middle of the road.
Despite the drivers' perseverance, Meals on Wheels was closed seven days between Jan. 1 and March 1. Volunteers prepare and deliver two "blizzard bags" of nonperishable items in mid-October to cover those situations, and this winter they had to replace those several times.
Meals on Wheels also offers a grocery shopping service for the homebound elderly and disabled who can't shop for themselves, and even an "Ani-Meals on Wheels" pet food program. Almost 900 volunteers donated their time in the past year, including 563 drivers. Government funding covers only about 29 percent of the cost, with the rest coming from client fees and fundraising.
All this boils down to one thing: Because of Meals on Wheels, senior citizens and people with disabilities are able to more safely maintain their independence. And it wouldn't happen without the real champions, these volunteers. Soos said, "We call them our driving force."
If you want to discuss how you can help, call Soos at 610-691-1030.
Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.