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Meals on Wheels volunteers do more than just deliver food

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published November 4, 2015

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MACOMB COUNTY — In a world stricken by poverty and disease, the importance of something like Meals on Wheels can never be understated.

The program, which is part of the Office of Senior Services within the Macomb County Community Services Agency, is designed to feed senior citizens who are unable to prepare meals for themselves due to mental or physical impairments.  

Distribution is pretty simple: Volunteers deliver hot and fresh food to seniors five days per week on a year-round basis.

According to Volunteer Coordinator Elise Cretcher, about 1,700 meals are distributed Mondays through Fridays from 23 different Macomb County sites. Sites pack up meals that are made by catering kitchens and adhere to nutritional standards — including meals that restrict fats and salt and promote proper fiber, vitamins and protein.

Examples of meals include macaroni and cheese, scalloped potatoes, sandwiches, pepper steak over rice, turkey pot roast, spaghetti, orange chicken and more.

To be eligible to receive meals, a senior must be 60 years of age or older or the spouse of someone 60 and over; homebound; unable to attend “Dining Senior Style” sites at various locations due to physical or emotional disabilities; and incapable of preparing full meals. Eligibility for the program is not based on income.

The recipients receive meals from volunteers who spend their time driving on routes that make 10-12 stops per day. The commitment for volunteers — who must possess a valid I.D. and car insurance, and have no criminal background in the past 10 years — is as little as three hours per month.

Cretcher noted that there is a lack of volunteers, especially younger ones.

She said people who volunteered 20 years ago are still part of the process, though they are aging like the seniors who they are delivering food to in the first place.

“They get older and are less capable,” Cretcher said of many volunteers.

In an effort to reach a higher volume of potential volunteers, the county goes to various organizations, church groups and other places to explain the program and the need for help.

Ultimately, food is not the only item being delivered.

“Volunteers develop relationships with people,” she said. “We like to say it’s more than just a meal.”

That’s where people like Carrie and Stephen Sylvester come into the fold.

In the year or so that the married couple has delivered meals out of their van, they have found a new light in the seniors they feed.

Originally, the Sylvesters completed a two- or three-day route every other week, but now they complete the route — which runs east of Gratiot Avenue in St. Clair Shores — every week and know it by heart.

Stephen is a retired dispatcher from the Michigan State Police, and after finding an ad in a newspaper, he wanted to do something to help the less fortunate. He knew there was a need for volunteers before he retired a few years ago.

He said volunteers start to miss the people they deliver to because relationships develop, even during the limited encounters at each stop due to time constraints.

“We’ve really enjoyed it. We’ve met some really nice people,” Stephen said. “It gives (Carrie and me) a chance to be together and help folks out.”

The route is about nine miles. It’s convenient for the couple, too, since they live in the area.

They have seen stories of hope and heartbreak. During one stop, a man never answered the door when they arrived, so they called an emergency contact number of a family member who came over and found the man alive, lying on the bathroom floor.

They have seen people get ill and then become stronger and healthier. Or sometimes, sadly, the opposite takes place. 

There’s one blind woman who sits on the porch in the summer and just basks in the heat.

And then there are people like Darlene Barducci, whose comedic humor keep her spry. She owns an organ and plays it for two hours every day.

“I don’t look good,” Barducci joked. “My organ looks better than me.”

If you make all the stops at the seniors’ homes, it’s sort of a tidal wave of emotions. Seeing volunteers may be the only contact many of the individuals have throughout the day.

Carrie, who volunteers in the morning and then works as a Michigan State Police dispatcher in the afternoon, said she and her husband are impacted just as much as the seniors are by the two of them.

It becomes about more than just food — a little small talk goes a long way. Volunteers become a part of the seniors’ lives in a positive way. And the Sylvesters don’t plan to stop anytime soon.

“This is a great way to start our day,” Carrie said. “It’s life-changing for them and us. A smile and a meal is sometimes all they get.”

To become a volunteer or find out more information about the Meals on Wheels program, visit www.mccsa.macombgov.org.

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