Meals keep on rolling

Sun City program continues without interruption

Fredia Nelson,right, checks the hot meals before she and her driver, Gary Cooper, begin their Sun City Meals on Wheels route May 11. The program has continued without interruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fredia Nelson,right, checks the hot meals before she and her driver, Gary Cooper, begin their Sun City Meals on Wheels route May 11. The program has continued without interruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With Arizona restaurants cautiously opening to dine-in status last week, it has been business as usual — mostly — for the Sun City Meals on Wheels program.

Delivery volunteers arrive at 10:30 a.m. at the Banner Boswell Skilled Nursing Rehabilitation Center, 10601 W. Santa Fe Drive, where the meals are prepared. Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, Meals on Wheels officials and volunteers cannot enter the facility. Volunteers stay outside waiting for rehab workers to deliver the meals to their vehicles. Each client received one cold and one hot meal. Usually the teams leave the parking lot by 11:15 a.m. and complete deliveries by noon.

While there have been some modifications, volunteers continued to deliver without interruption to a list of clients in Sun City and Youngtown. It was a case of continuing the program or some people would be without food, according to Cheryl Duter, Sun City Meals on Wheels director.

“For some of our clients, this is the only meals they have during the day,” she said. “They use our services for a variety of reasons — they don’t have transportation to shop, they no longer can cook or for health reasons that can’t get out to shop.”

During normal times, the program volunteers make about 60 deliveries per day. But following the coronavirus outbreak, that number has jumped to about 90 per day, according to Ms. Duter.

“This is likely because our clients fear leaving their homes to shop, and now are concerned that food will not be available,” Ms. Duter said.

The program task became more difficult when some volunteers, due to concern about the virus, suspended their efforts with the program.

“Not only are many of our clients dealing with compromised immune systems, but our volunteers are as well,” Ms. Duter explained. “Our volunteers range in age from 50 to 90 plus years old! As such, many dedicated volunteers had to step down due to health concerns during the pandemic.”

Some substitute volunteers stepped forward to fill the gaps.

“We heard about this through friends and we wanted to help in our community,” said Jerry Martin, getting ready for his second delivery route.

His wife, Donna, said they met on their first delivery day some people in their 80s who had been confined to their homes for six weeks.

“We were their only contact,” she said.

Ms. Duter said regular volunteers who suspended their work are eager to rejoin the program.

While deliveries continued, there have been some modifications to ensure client and volunteer safety. Ms. Duter explained volunteers wear face masks and gloves, and the meals are placed in plastic bags so there is limited personal contact.

“We have had several church groups and sewing groups supply cloth masks because we could not find them commercially.” Ms. Duter said.

While volunteers wear masks, one does not. Gary Cooper has a tracheostomy tube in his throat and he tried to wear a mask but it restricted his breathing. Now he serves only as a driver for his delivery partner, Fredia Nelson.

“He is a real hero,” Ms. Nelson said. “He is in an extremely high risk situation, but he’s out here helping others.”

Prior to the pandemic, volunteers would enter homes, often placing the meal on a table or counter, and in some instance, opening the meal when it was difficult for the client to do so, Ms. Duter said. But that has also changed.

“We had to restrict these personal touches, in the interest of safety for our volunteers and clients,” she explained.  

That personal contact is missed by clients and volunteers alike.

“They miss the opportunity to visit; we could be the only person they see all day,” said Robin Hafey.

Some clients now stay indoors and have the food put on a table or chair on the front entryway, she added. However, volunteers try to do something to brighten clients’ days.

“We made and delivered lemon bread with bunny ears at Easter,” Ms. Hafey said. “A lot of clients were very excited.”

Judy Bosinski, a regular volunteer in the summer and when she is not substitute teaching, said clients are very humble and grateful for the meals.

“But they look so alone,” she said. “Sometimes I want to stay and chat a bit, but I am concerned about their welfare and ours.”

In addition to delivery volunteers, office workers Odette Hamlin and JoAnn Dudish respond to client requests and ensure the clients receive their meals, according to Ms. Duter. The maintenance of the client data base is complicated, as clients frequently call to stop a meal due to medical appointments, food preferences or other questions or comments. The deliveries are different every day, and often different each week, according to Ms. Duter. When a volunteer reports that the client seems to be struggling or not well, office workers make a call to their next of kin to alert them to follow up, she added. 

Other volunteers interview new clients. In the past, the interviewers entered the home and filled out the application and collected a two-week deposit. Now most of the application is completed on the telephone, and then the interviewer goes to the house to get the contract signed and collect the deposit, according to Ms. Duter.

“These volunteers are also practicing precautionary measures to protect themselves and the new client,” she said.

Meals on Wheels volunteers can be considered on the front lines of the pandemic, according to Ms. Duter.

“Their service is paramount to the mission, and their dedication is unparalleled,” she said. “We couldn’t do this without them.”