This week, KMUW News is telling the stories of volunteers who donate their time and talent to Sedgwick County organizations and nonprofits. Many people do their volunteer assignments year round--not just at the holidays.
KMUW’s Deborah Shaar spent time with the volunteers who keep the Meals on Wheels program rolling.
It’s mid-morning, and the pace is starting to pick up at the Meals on Wheels kitchen in downtown Wichita.
The kitchen staff is working quickly to portion the hot food they’ve prepared into portable containers that are sealed for delivery. Nine hundred meals come off this food assembly line each weekday. They’re stacked on dozens of trays in warming racks until the meal delivery drivers arrive.
Volunteer Vic Brown is on meal packing duty. Dozens of people--all volunteers--are lined up along the service counter in front of the kitchen.
They have their Meals on Wheels delivery routes and a few empty red or blue insulated coolers. Brown fills the coolers with hot meals, then drivers head out to deliver to homebound seniors.
Like many volunteers, Brown is retired. He has been helping with the Meals on Wheels program on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for the past 13 years.
Sherri Flippo, the program’s social service director, credits longtime volunteers for keeping the meal delivery operation running smoothly.
"We have an excellent volunteer crew, we really do," she says. "They are our best spokespeople really because I think once they try it, they do get hooked."
Meals on Wheels serves people over the age of 60 who are living at home with serious health issues. There is no income qualification to receive meals.
"They have to, for whatever reason, have difficulty preparing a nutritious meal on a daily basis. It could be a safety issue; it could be dementia or memory issues. A lot of times it’s a combination of health issues," Flippo says.
There are 73 meal delivery routes throughout Wichita each weekday. Another eight routes on the weekends serve about 50 of the frailest people in the program.
St. James Episcopal Church on East Douglas serves as a satellite location for meal pick-up, which saves eastside volunteers the drive downtown.
A Meals on Wheels staff member unloads the coolers full of hot food and white paper sacks filled with small milk cartons and pudding cups.
A half-dozen volunteers are standing around the trunk, including Jack and Kathy Poling. The husband and wife team delivers about 28 to 35 meals each Wednesday morning in northeast Wichita neighborhoods.
"We finish over on Oliver and we hit a house up on 27th street and then we come back and hit a small apartment complex and then another small apartment complex and then we get over to there," Jack says.
"He’s the navigator," Kathy notes.
Jack Poling started volunteering for Meals on Wheels about 14 years ago, soon after he retired from Boeing.
"When I worked, I didn’t do a whole lot for the community, and when I retired, I said I am going to do something," Jack says. "But I wanted to do something for those who are in a position who couldn’t take care of themselves and that’s definitely the elderly."
Kathy joined Jack’s volunteer shift about four years ago after she retired from Boeing. If he’s the navigator, then she’s the greeter, bringing the meal and often a smile to the people waiting inside each house or apartment.
Providing a hot meal is the core mission of the Meals on Wheels program. Having the volunteers see the homebound seniors each day is also important. It’s a safety check for those who might not have any other contact throughout the day.
Kathy Poling has come to know the women and men on her route--and some of their health issues.
"So you try to encourage them each week," she says. "Or if you notice something about their health that doesn’t look right, then you bring it to their attention because sometimes you’re the only one who sees that change from week to week."
About halfway through the route, the Polings arrive at a small one-story apartment complex. There are several meal deliveries here, so Jack takes half. One of his favorites is Melrose Horn, who is 94 years old.
"She calls me her boyfriend, and I call her my girlfriend," Jack says. "They recognize my knock."
The quick visits aren’t always as pleasant as the one to Melrose Horn’s place. During his 14 years with Meal on Wheels, Jack Poling has seen the effects of aging on a few of his regulars.
"That’s one of the down sides to this. You do see people slowly deteriorating," he says. "It’s kind of hard especially when you develop a relationship with them. Sometimes they just disappear, but you never know whether they got sick or passed away. Sometimes you see their obituaries. Usually you don’t."
The Polings say the positive part of helping those in need far outweigh the negative. They take their duty seriously and rarely cancel their standing Wednesday morning assignment.
"We even, a lot of time, schedule our vacations around this one," Kathy says. "You just know, you just feel the need as soon as they open the door and you have an individual who you can see in their eyes, they are hungry. So you just know that sometimes in some cases that may be the only meal a lot of them get."
With winter coming, the Meals on Wheels program needs to boost its roster of substitute delivery drivers, because there will be cancellations. Volunteers often have their own health issues, or sometimes, the bad weather is just too much.
The Polings make it a point to continue when it snows.
"If you don’t come, they can’t get out," Kathy says. "A lot of times you have to just crawl over the snow and get there."
And get there they do. The Polings’ deliveries--all 35--take under two hours on days without snow.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar
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