By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — North Tonawanda Meals on Wheels appears to have a glut of volunteers, with 120 mostly retirees offering their time to cook and deliver meals to the homes of more than 100 individuals several times a week.
But with snowbirds out of town for the winter months and several of it’s members getting sick in recent weeks, the organization is now struggling to meet the needs of its clients, many of whom count on the one or two meals they receive most days to maintain their independence.
Joy Welch, the group’s coordinator, is sending out a urgent call for those with a free hour or two once a week, to fill the void left by its regulars.
“It’s getting a little rough finding volunteers,” she said. “People here have either gone to the hospital for surgery or they’ve gone away. Some days are OK, other’s we have some empty spaces with nobody who is permanent, especially Tuesdays and Wednesday. There’s a real problem there and this has been an ongoing thing.”
Most of the the organization’s needs revolve around its volunteer drivers, who along with a required assistant whiz through their routes each day in one to two hours and generally serve 16 clients at a time. Many of those receiving the meals, who pay for the service, are in their 80s and 90s and cannot get to the store or cook for themselves.
“More than 90 percent are aged and we have some who are very aged,” Welch said. “We have at least one who is 100 and several are in their late 90s. Our demographics are changing. We used to have mostly 70-year-olds, then it changed to 80s and now we’re starting to get 90-year-olds. People are starting to live longer.”
Some of the volunteers have been with meals on wheels for 20 years or more, Welch said, and over time, many of the 9 drivers and 9 assistants who come each day have formed lasting friendships.
The organization does not received government funding, and survive off the fees it charges seniors for the service and fundraising events. Those who volunteer to drive and use their own vehicle also cover the expense of gasoline, though individuals age 55 and older can often get some form of government assistance to cover those costs.
But the time and financial obligations go a long way in keeping those who receive the service in their homes, while Welch said what keeps many of the volunteers coming back is the enrichment that comes along with knowing the clients.
“Most of the volunteers are retirees but we do have people who come during their lunch hour or who work the late shift,” Welch said. “They have to be available from 10:45 a.m. to 12:30 or 1 p.m. They have good hearts, and my answer for why they do it has always been that only the best people come here.”
On Thursday, two kitchen volunteers were pulled out of their duties to cover the missing drivers, which set the whole operation back a bit, according to Welch.
Pamela Hill, the organization’s head cook who is one of four paid staff members at Meals On Wheels, said the volunteer shortage has had an effect on the operation.
“The most important thing is to get the meals out to the people,” she said. “And it helps to keep them in their homes, where it’s much more cost effective. If they go into nursing home all it does is get passed on to the taxpayers. At home they can stay self-sufficient. It’s hard when you have to give up your independence and this program helps them keep that. And it’s fun to meet them.”
Those interested in volunteering can call the North Tonawanda Meals on Wheels at 693-1663 or visit the location between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, 100 Ridge Road.YOU CAN HELP • WHAT: North Tonawanda Meals on Wheels needs volunteer drivers • WHEN: 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. weekdays, most urgently Tuesdays and Wednesdays • MORE INFO: Driver must cover the cost of their own gas but senior volunteers may be eligible for government reimbursement. • CONTACT: Joy Welch, Meals on Wheels coordinator, 693-1663 or in person, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays at the operation's headquarters, 100 Ridge Road, North Tonawanda. Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.