Volunteers behind Meals On Wheels are the literal driving force in feeding hungry seniors throughout our local communities.
According to Meals On Wheels' national website, nearly one in six seniors are threatened by hunger.
Much too often, statistics put up a wall between the people and the actual problem, but when those clients are your neighbors, the problem of hunger becomes concrete and personal. For many volunteers, the drive behind their efforts often stems from their personal desire to make a difference within the community.
Birdsboro Berks Encore is one of seven locations throughout the county including Mifflin, Reading, Hamburg, Wernersville, Strausstown, and Fleetwood. The Birdsboro location covers four Meals On Wheels routes; Birdsboro, Douglassville, Exeter and Morgantown.
Patty Barker is the center manager at Birdsboro Berks Encore, located at 201 E. Main St., Birdsboro, right across the street from borough hall.
Barker has been working at the center for the past two and a half years, and started as a volunteer herself. 'I couldn't do this without my volunteers, they are what makes it work,' she said.
There are three shifts of a daily Meals On Wheels operation, starting with preparing the meals in the morning. Meals are delivered to each of the centers each morning from a nutrition group out of York. The volunteers are responsible for measuring and packing the meals.
For the kitchen to operate most efficiently, it should be staffed with five volunteers. Each route should be manned with two people, a driver and a runner, to successfully deliver meals to shut in or disabled seniors. When the volunteers of the group are short on help, it takes them much longer to prepare and deliver the meals. Area
Agency On Aging funds the Meals On Wheels, which provides the free service for the elderly. All they ask is a suggested donation of $2 per meal.
Steve Sugalski, Douglassville, has been volunteering with Meals On Wheels for three years. Sugalski shares the secret of his stamina, he goes by his motto to 'always get the coffee started' when he comes in to volunteer. 'When I'm all done, I have a coffee,' he said while portioning out cups of papaya and pineapple fruits to be delivered with the meals. Sugalski volunteers because he likes to 'get out and help.' Four days a week Sugalski works in the kitchen, preparing and packing the meals; but he often fills in as a runner. The number of recipients per day depends on each individual's need. Some clients only get meals twice or three times a week, while others receive meals on a daily basis.
Delivery of the meal is the core reason for the visit,but for the home bound seniors, that visit may be the only time they interact with someone that day.
Meal runs provide social interactions. 'I've gotten to know them pretty well,' Sugalski said in reference to those on the Birdsboro route. On his runs on Wednesday, March 12, Sugalski delivered meals to 14 clients. 'We were up to 18 at one point,' he said about the numbers.
As home bound seniors, the clients often do not have family members who live close by, or friends who visit on the regular. Volunteers who stay consistent with their schedules get to know those on their route on a personal level, and become accustomed to their habits. They begin to notice things out of the ordinary, like old newspapers laying in the yard, which can be a tip off that something might not be right. A volunteer dropping off a meal may be the defining difference in a life or death situation.
Becoming accustomed to the individual client's schedule and habits becomes an essential part.
A drop off experience depends on both the client and the volunteer. Some clients put a white cooler outside their door, which instructs the volunteer to drop off the meal. Other clients prefer a visit, and invite the volunteer into their home to chat.
One of the clients, Ray, had a stroke and since has been wheelchair bound.
'I might starve to death without it,' Ray said about the service. 'It's wonderful.'
Coming out of the harsh winter is a relief for both the center's volunteers and clients. 'We were closed more than we have been in the past,' he said. Berks Encore prepares ahead in anticipation of bad weather with special meals. Throughout the winter the 'blizzard packs' are made up and delivered for the seniors to use during the snow days, as the center closes for bad weather.
Many of the meal recipients have previously volunteered with the organization, and now are part of the delivery route.
For volunteer Inge Harmsen, Flying Hills, delivering meals 'makes me think about my father,' as she was his caretaker during the end of his life. Harmsen loves volunteering at the Birdsboro center, and prefers to deliver the meals on her own.
'I do [both] the runs and the drives... I like to see the people,' Harmsen said, with a smile. 'I love doing it.'There is one client one her route that she especially care for. Jultz Marino, Birdsboro, is one of the recipients of Meals On Wheels who used to volunteer.
'I used to work with her in the kitchen on Fridays,' Harmsen said about Marino.
It is that inner drive that keeps the dedicated volunteers coming back.
Judith Logan, Birdsboro, has recently retired from 22 years at the Reading Hospital. 'It gives me a purpose -- to come down here [and volunteer],' Logan said while sealing the meals for delivery.
Caleb James, Oley, has been volunteering with Meals On Wheels at Birdsboro Berks Encore for just the past three weeks, but has plans to continue his service of giving back. James is no stranger to service as he was stationed with the Marines in Japan and Korea. He started volunteering with Berks Encore because of his girlfriend, Thea Behm who has been volunteering for over one year.
Patsy Smale, Douglassville, started as a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels, but took a year off after she suffered from a small stroke. Now, she's back and ready to go. 'I felt like I was helping,' is what drives the retired Douglassville resident to donate her time. 'It's something to do, you meet other people and learn,' Smale said.
Larry McCoog, Elverson, retired two years ago with the assumption that he would spend his time re-reading his personal collection of novels. '[My wife] said 'not in this house!' and sent me up and out to volunteer,' he said. McCoog began his volunteering career but heard there was a need in Birdsboro and has been with them ever since. The McCoogs often deliver meals on the Morgantown route together. 'I love it there,' McCoog said about his Meals on Wheels route.
'It's a pleasure, we help them with getting a visit,' he said.
Dave Fox, Robeson, and his wife, Sue, have been volunteering with Birdsboro Berks Encore for the past five years. 'The people appreciate it,' Fox said, which keeps him motivated to come back. 'We get to see how the seniors are coping... helping them is gratifying.'
The clients enjoy the experience even more than the volunteers.
'It's nice,' Kathryn, a Meals On Wheels client, said. 'They are very nice people, very sociable people,' she said.
Volunteers are needed at all locations to provide center help with program ideas, volunteers to interact with the seniors at the Birdsboro Community Center, prepare meals, drive, run, and cleanup.
Barker goes above and beyond for the center's clients and volunteers. Volunteers are needed to work as kitchen help in the mornings, before the deliveries and runs begin around 10 a.m. As the sole employee, Barker often must take deliveries out herself, when the center is not fully staffed by volunteer help. 'We can always use substitutes,' Barker explained. 'Their precious time that they offer all means the world to us.'
Currently, Birdsboro Berks Encore has opening slots for runners for the Douglassville route on the third Monday of the month, a runner for the Birdsboro route on Wednesdays, and drivers and runners for the Morgantown route on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Volunteers are always needed on a daily basis at the center. Just a few hours throughout the week can have a huge positive effect in someone's life, and organizations like Berks Encore and Meals On Wheels depend and rely on volunteers to fuel the operations.
If you would like to volunteer at the Birdsboro location, call Patty Barker at 610-582-1603.