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Meals without wheels?

Food service for the homebound faces dire lack of volunteers.

by Amanda Olesen, Staff Writer
Publication: South Bend Tribune

October 8, 2007

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Nearly 281 homebound people across north-central Indiana look forward to having meals delivered to their doorstep every day.

But that could change as a result of high gas prices and aging volunteers.

The Meals on Wheels program of North Central Indiana, part of REAL Services, has reached a level of desperation in its need for more volunteers, according to Deb Leach, who serves as the volunteer coordinator for REAL Services.

"Just imagine your grandmother, aunt or favorite elderly neighbor homebound with nothing to eat. This is not an exaggeration but a reality if our volunteer program doesn't increase," Leach said.

"The last thing we wish is to have to put new clients on a waiting list while we hope for more volunteers," she said. "This isn't the case at the moment, but unfortunately it might become a reality."

The Meals on Wheels program is designed to offer delivery of a lunch and dinner meal once
a day -- up to seven days a week -- to people who are homebound and unable to adequately prepare their own meals.

Volunteers to deliver the food are crucial. But the list of volunteers is steadily shrinking.

The demand, according to Meals on Wheels Director Donna Bauer, is more than their organization has seen in 28 years and is continuing to grow.

Five years ago, the program was serving about 175 people per day with about 145 volunteers delivering meals, most helping three to five days per week.

Today, Bauer said, the client list is almost 300 people. In contrast, they've only been able to add 20 volunteers, most helping only one to three days per week.

The types of people asking for Meals on Wheels have expanded beyond the homebound elderly.

"It's not just the poor, old grandma next door in need of Meals on Wheels anymore," Bauer
said to Leah Schrock, director of health education, community relations and agency
development at REAL Services.

As Bauer and Schrock sat in Bauer's office, the enormity of the volunteer dilemma appeared
to overwhelm them.

"The people asking for meals are getting younger and younger. Some of that, I believe, is
due to illness. Cancer knows no age. Even if you won't be needing our services indefinitely,
for instance, you may need temporary assistance whether you're 34 or 84," Bauer said as
she rubbed her forehead. "And we need to be able to serve you."

Bauer said she receives an average of seven to eight calls per week for new referrals alone.

"We need to start a new route in order to service all of the new clients who need our service," Bauer said. "The problem, though, is that we really can't take care of the amount of people we have right now."

Most current volunteers are growing older, and the younger generation doesn't seem to have the time to devote.

Additionally, volunteers are often on a fixed income, with dwindling money to pay for gas and vehicle upkeep to make deliveries.

The longest route -- about 45 miles -- can drain the wallets of volunteers, who use their own
vehicles and gas.

Volunteers are reimbursed $2 every time they drive, which isn't enough to begin to cover their costs, Bauer said.

Other avenues to earn compensation don't really add up, either. Ken Milani, a professor at
the University of Notre Dame, said it's possible for a volunteer to claim an income tax writeoff, "but that only applies to 25 percent of taxpayers who meet certain criteria. And even
then they'll only be allowed 14 cents a mile. That's basically the only benefit they'll get -- not
much."

The younger generation, the ideal target for new volunteers who may also have more money to spare, doesn't seem to have the time, Barber said.

Adding to the difficulty is the time of the day the meals are delivered: the noon mealtime.

Many of the 17 routes generally involve a nearly two-hour commitment. Bauer sees no way
around the timing of meal delivery.

"Those people are depending on their afternoon hot meal," she said. "We work with volunteers to the best of our abilities that will also meet our clients' needs.

"Ideally, we are looking for a once-a-week commitment," Bauer said.

Searching for the words to define the level of commitment needed, however, is difficult for
Schrock.

"These people," she said, "are depending on these meals. People need to follow through."

Schrock said that the organization is also having a difficult time with new volunteers not following through. As a result, she fears that people may eventually go without a meal.

If the number of new referrals continues to escalate while volunteers decrease, Leach said the group might reach the point of no longer being able to take new clients.

Meals on Wheels recipients generally pay $50 per week for the nutritionally based meals, but low-income individuals aren't turned away from the nonprofit organization.

"Consequently, we continue to look for funding to help ease the gas problem for MOW volunteers," Schrock said.

They're asking for various forms of assistance. A donation of $25 or more, according to Bauer, is an easy and appreciated way to help.

"The money donated will go to gas or directly into subsidizing the services here," she said. "The best part is that, of course, individuals always have the option of choosing directly where they want their money to go."

Although a quick solution doesn't look imminent, Bauer hopes raising awareness will bring more volunteers.

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