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Meals on Wheels serves food with a heart

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series highlighting volunteer activities in the Lebanon community.

Lebanon Meals on Wheels (MOW), under the umbrella of Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments (OCWCOG), is a hot food delivery service for seniors who are often homebound and have zero to few other options for obtaining nutritious food.

Nita Lowry scoops green beans onto a tray. Hot meals are prepared five days a week for clients.

“The program helps seniors to stay in the communities where they have established roots so they can enjoy the kind of personal connections that will help them thrive and live the independent lives they deserve,” OCWCOG Communications Officer Meg Walker said. “The power of a knock transforms lives, and the Lebanon program could use more volunteers.”

With a crew of about 45, Meal Site Manager Tori Hartman seems to feel pretty solid on help, but the pressure comes when any of them need to take time off.

“It seems to be an up and down thing,” Hartman said. “You get a nice full crew and then people need surgery or go on vacation.”

Ideally she would have 10 substitute volunteers willing to be on-call for route deliveries or kitchen prep, and that’s what she’s looking for. As it stands, Hartman herself is the only substitute driver, which means she may drive one or two routes a day instead of performing her tasks on site.

Despite a bad back from decades of performing auto repair work, 78-year-old Butch Craig has been driving a regular route for Lebanon’s MOW for one year now. He had retired and moved to Lebanon from Albany more than two years ago, and signed up as a volunteer when he saw they needed help.

“I’m afraid if I ever stop, it will be all over for me; my body will lock up and I won’t be able to go again,” Craig said, referring to his need to stay active.

Yet he expressed gratitude for his health when he sees clients who might be worse off than him. He gets to know his clients, he said, and that creates memorable moments for him.

For him it’s a way to stay healthy, but he said he also does it to help out where he’s needed and to socialize. That brings up a point about MOW that may not be readily apparent as a food delivery service; the program has side benefits that act as a social and welfare-check system.

“This is maybe the only interaction some of (the clients) are having,” volunteer Keala Mitchell said.

Mitchell is a “rabbit,” a term used for volunteers who hop out of the car to deliver the meals while another volunteer does the driving. She initially intended to only serve for the few months the world was supposed to be “locked down” from COVID, but she never stopped “because it’s so amazing.”

“That’s the only contact they have, especially if they’re homebound,” Hartman said. “They don’t drive or they don’t have family in town. They don’t talk to anybody, no one. For lots of seniors, it’s been years; they’ve been in their house for the past 20 years.”

Meals on Wheels volunteers package up food sacks for the day’s deliveries.

MOW operates out of the Senior Center five days a week serving nearly 200 hot meals a day. The kitchen prep crew assists with food packaging and clean up, while drivers and rabbits distribute the meals throughout town. OCWCOC volunteer assistant Leigh Matthews Bock explained volunteers can dedicate one day a week or every other week. A normal shift lasts two to three hours.

While MOW delivers physical food to homebound seniors, volunteer Crissa Saxton said for her it’s “food for the soul” because she’s part of helping people get something decent to eat.

“They’re people who, for whatever reason, are stuck in their home and nutritionally either don’t have enough money or don’t have the werewithall to get nutritious food,” Saxton said.

And for those clients who don’t interact regularly with anyone else, a MOW volunteer may be the first person to find them in need of medical assistance. In the past, some of Hartman’s MOW volunteers have saved lives, including one client who had fallen and was on the floor until the next day when the MOW driver arrived.

Hartman alerts her drivers about the clients who are considered “high risk,” those who should be checked on if they don’t answer the door, in which case Hartman will try to reach family or call police for a welfare check.

As such, MOW volunteers are more than just providers of healthy food. They are a voice, an ear, a smile and, perhaps, a touch to the many people who otherwise may have none. They can also be heroes, saving lives with just a knock on the door. But it’s also a benefit to the volunteer, themselves.

“This sure beats sittin’ at home,” 94-year-old volunteer Nita Lowry said. “I think we’re worthless if we don’t contribute to something.”

Route driver Butch Craig pulls a hot food tray from his car while someone from the client’s family waits.

Prior to COVID, MOW also provided in-person dining at the Lebanon Senior Center. While the dining room has since reopened, only a handful of people sit in for a meal, while others continue to pick up the pre-packaged food to avoid any health risks.

Hartman’s current kitchen crew now only stays until 11:30 p.m., so she would be happy to have more who would be there to serve the dining room until 12:30.

“A knock at the door might not seem like a big deal to many of us, but to a homebound senior, it could signal the arrival of the only person they might see all day or all week long,” Walker said. “It brings hope. It brings health. It brings the nutrition and care that will completely make their day.”

Anyone interested in volunteering or learning more can stop by the Senior Center and pick up an application, email [email protected], or call 541.812.6015.