For the past four years, I have served as manager of the local Meals on Wheels Community Engagement division. I am responsible for community and media relations, marketing communications, events management, and serving as liaison with elected oﬃcials.
My ﬁrst contact with the organization was in 2009. We had just moved to Brentwood. I was working part time and wanted to become involved in the community and connect with people. While searching for opportunities, I ran across a program under the Meals on Wheels umbrella. It was called Friendly Visitors. The program called to me. When I interviewed with the program manager, I decided that I really wanted to work for the organization and, in fact, thought that I would like her job, if it ever opened up.
They matched me with an elderly sident of Summerset. Connecting with her appealed to me because it brought back nice memories of visiting with my beloved grandmother, who had passed a few years earlier. The connection was rewarding in both directions, because I felt that I got more from visiting her than she received from my visits. Like most Friendly Visitors volunteers, I usually exceeded that 1-hour minimum visitation standard. The woman’s children lived remotely, so I would bring my two sons with me on some visits, and they would work in her yard while the two of us visited. My husband John would come occasionally and perform a few honey-do kinds of tasks around the place.
I would have continued visiting that dear lady forever, but she passed away after nearly a year. There was a ﬁnal payoﬀ for me at her memorial service. While addressing the mourners during the program one of the adult children publicly acknowledged my presence and described how much my visits had meant to her mom.
In less than a year, the Friendly Visitors management position actually became available. When the position became available, my knowledge of the program and relatable experience gave me an advantage, and I was hired.
One strong motivation for helping these dear people is my ﬁrm belief that they should be rewarded for enduring the struggles of life, raising their families, serving their communities, and often serving in the military. In their twilight years, they should not have to choose whether to spend their dwindling income on food, rent, or medication.
We can be moved by statistics and react to information about issues, but facts really come alive and our hearts are genuinely moved by contact with any of the real lives that we have connected with during the five decades we have spent serving senior citizens and listening to their stories.
One client, in particular, an elderly woman named Hazel, has become an unofficial evangelist for our services. Hazel stands up with a microphone at public events and describes our quality-oflife impact. She speaks particularly about how we reached out to her husband, Maurice. When Maurice was 15 years old, he lied about his age in order to serve in the military during WWII. When we first reached out to them, Hazel was having difficulty locating and securing resources to meet the physical challenges Maurice was facing. Their Meals on Wheels volunteer got them in touch with our Care Management group who helped them secure the resources they needed. For example, our Fall Prevention program installed some safety devices in their home and enlisted them in an in-home exercise therapy course. We signed Maurice up with a Share the Spirit project that gave veterans $100 gift cards to use at their discretion. Meals on Wheels, of course, continued to provide nutritious meals. Last fall, when Maurice passed, the Friendly Visitors program matched Hazel with a volunteer who continues to provide companionship visits.
Most people are unaware of the breadth and depth of the services offered under the Meals on Wheels umbrella, because we have a “whole person care” philosophy, which means taking care of the senior in more ways than nutrition. Visits by Meals on Wheels volunteers provide entrance into a home, where they can identify other areas in which the elderly person might need help, as well. Our Care Management Program, works with seniors to locate and obtain resources for wellness and quality of life needs. Ongoing studies constantly reveal the growing list of services that are required to maintain acceptable quality of life levels for the aging members of our society. As a result, we are continually expanding our support to match our services to the growing knowledge of what seniors need.
We recently recognized a fairness issue, because an independent research project examining the geographic distribution of county social services revealed the uncomfortable fact that only one dollar was spent for social services in East County for every eight dollars spent in West County. Something needed to be done to make the situation more equitable. We began coordinating with other nonprofits working to meet senior needs in the area.
Meals on Wheels Diablo Region had been active for decades, but at that time we weren’t making deliveries east and south of Antioch. People didn’t know about our other services because they lacked regular contact with a Meals on Wheels volunteer, which was the most important channel of communication into the community. We had been partnering with county agencies that had been delivering meals in the area, so we simply added the other parts of East County to our Meals on Wheels territory and now deliver meals to seniors throughout the region.
Our funding comes from a number of sources including federal, state, county, city, foundations, grants, and private donations. Most of our work is carried out by volunteers. As a result of our prioritizing clients over administrative costs, 90 cents of every dollar goes directly to providing services to our clients. Nevertheless, stretching our funds far enough to cover all of our needs is a challenge we face continually.
The Meals on Wheels story goes back to 1968, when a small group of Walnut Creek professional women from the healthcare industry recognized the fact that a number of senior citizens in the area were not meeting their daily nutritional needs. They organized a movement to address those needs and enlisted resources and volunteer help from local hospitals and churches; they financed their project through a series of yard sales. They began distributing nutritious dishes and entreés to the seniors’ homes, so they eventually adopted the Meals on Wheels name.
“TO PUT IT BLUNTLY, AN ELDERLY PERSON DEPRIVED OF SOCIAL CONTACT WILL EXPERIENCE MORE ILLNESS AND DIE SOONER THAN IF HE/SHE HAD SOMEONE TO AT LEAST VISIT WITH ON A REGULAR BASIS.”
The project continued to grow as the Graying of America phenomenon swung into high gear and the number of underserved seniors increased. While meeting the nutritional needs of a growing senior population, they began to recognize that the people they were visiting had other problems that were not connected to nutrition. In particular, a growing number of findings from social science research projects directly connect isolation for seniors to an increase in disease and decrease in longevity.
The stark reality became apparent that many elderly people were languishing in body, mind, and spirit because of the absence of human contact. Happy moments decline when we have no one to share our happiness. A hopeful spirit will wither and die if no one is around to share our hopes with. Loving impulses vanish in the absence of people to love.
To put it bluntly, an elderly person deprived of social contact will experience more illness and die sooner than if he/she had someone to at least visit with on a regular basis. In the early 1970s, when the Meals on Wheels community became aware of the dangers of isolation, they responded by creating a Friendly Visitors project, recruiting volunteers who would commit to providing companionship for at least one hour a week.
The job is far from ﬁnished! Too many seniors in East County continue to be undernourished and lack essential health and wellness resources that we could provide if we only had more funding and especially more volunteers.
Check out our volunteer page. An hour a week could make a big diﬀerence in the life of a senior. It could make an even bigger diﬀerence in your own life.
My service through Meals on Wheels is a central life issue for me. I started very young working on a variety of jobs. For example, I wrote copy for a classic rock station plus created promotions, conducted an interview program, did voice work, and sold airtime. At another point in my career I was carrying out administrative management tasks and doing some writing for the Brentwood Press. My résumé appears to present an eclectic work history. However, the various parts all ﬁt together. My current administrative tasks call upon skills and abilities gained from every job I ever did in the past. Shakespeare wrote about “a divinity that shapes our ends.” It’s a comforting idea. My life feels shaped. I have a distinct impression that I’ve somehow been deliberately led to
I love my job. What could be better than being creative, reaching out to people, meeting their needs, making a diﬀerence in the world, and getting paid for it. There’s sacriﬁce involved. Nonproﬁt salaries aren’t comparable to corporate. I could make more income in a commercial enterprise and wouldn’t have to ﬁgure out how to make ends meet. But the struggles are worth it.