Program must go on despite lack of drivers
The Jefferson County Meals on Wheels route includes 40 clients who receive meal deliveries three times a week, every week, and right now one driver drops off all 40 deliveries on any given day.
Chrissy Saunders, Jefferson County area coordinator for the program, said she has three volunteers who drive the route, one person for each day of delivery. Sometimes, though, a volunteer can't make it for one reason or another, and then it is a scramble to find a driver, and oftentimes she ends up making the deliveries and having to put her other responsibilities aside.
"We have been so shorthanded for a long time," said Saunders. "We pretty much rely on the volunteers."
Saunders' official title is kitchen manager at the Jefferson County Community Center. She is the center's only paid employee and has a mere 23 hours to work with in her week, so when she ends up driving the meal route, it makes the time challenge even tighter.
They make it happen, getting the meals together and sent out, on top of feeding the people who come into the center for lunch.
"It would really be nice, though, too, if we could have some more help," she said.
"We used to have regulars, you know, people who did it consistently, and (now) we are down," Saunders said.
The program does have a few substitute drivers Saunders can call in a pinch to see if they are available, but only the three consistent volunteers.
The task is pretty simple for volunteers.
Saunders gets the food in from Deer Ridge Correctional Facility, where it is prepared, packaged into disposable meal cartons and sealed with cellophane. Then she sorts it out, making stacks for each delivery.
Each time volunteers deliver — every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday — the client receives a hot meal. If it is the day before a day when they don't deliver, say a Wednesday and they don't deliver on Thursday, the program sends out a frozen meal for the extra day. It is the same way over the weekend.
Not all clients get the frozen meals. It is up to them whether or not they need or want them, but they do get sent out.
Saunders sets up all the food and puts it in hot or cold carrier bags to get it ready for the driver. She tries to make it as easy as possible on the drivers who come in to pick it up.
The driver comes in around 11 a.m. on delivery day,s goes over the delivery list, and then heads out to drop off the food.
Saunders said that when she had more consistent volunteer,s she would have a driver for the Culver/Metolius route each delivery day and a separate Madras driver each day as well, so the time commitment wasn't as great. Now the driver does both routes, with the Madras route taking about an hour and a half and the Metolius and Culver route another hour.
"We work with the Council on Aging in Bend, and we have reimbursement forms as well if volunteers wanted to use that for their mileage, which is 46 cents per mile," she said. "I know it is not a lot (but it adds up)."
If the program could find more volunteers, Saunders said, the route times would drop as well, and it wouldn't be as big a time commitment.
She said that the Meals on Wheels program is in need of consistency, even if that means people volunteer to deliver once a month but commit to a certain day. For example, she said it would be great if someone volunteered and said they would drive every second Tuesday of the month, or something like that.
She said it can be pretty stressful when they are scrambling to find drivers if she ends up having to drive, but ultimately she said, "We need to get these meals delivered. These are seniors and people who need to be eating."
Throughout Central Oregon, there are six sites that Meals on Wheels operates out of, including the one at the Jefferson County Community Center, but according to Susan Rotella, executive director at the Council on Aging in Bend, finding drivers in Madras, specifically, seems to be one of the biggest challenges.
She said that as the weather changes and snow prohibits clients from getting out even more than usual, as well as being harder on delivery drivers, the need increases.
She said the program does make sure that clients have access to several shelf stable meals in case the weather changes suddenly and deliveries are delayed.
The program is funded by federal entities as part of the Older Americans Act. The money goes to the state and then from there is dispersed to the 16 agencies, like the Council on Aging in Bend, to use for the program.
A client must be over the age of 60 and have some sort of mobility issue, Rotella said. When someone reaches out to see if they qualify for Meals on Wheels, a case manager will do an assessment of the need that person has and if they qualify.
Some of the money from the program comes from Medicaid, and when someone qualifies under that umbrella, there is no cap on funding. However, funding that comes from outside of that comes in set amounts, so the program has to cap how many slots are available.
Rotella said eight people are on a waitlist in Jefferson County.
To get more information on volunteering, call Saunders at the Jefferson County Community Center, 541-475-1148.
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