By Kevin Cullen

Meals on Wheels a 'life-link' for recipients


Orvin Crook, an 88-year-old widower, still lives on his own in his own house. The retired railroader has diabetes and osteoporosis, yes, but he also has a quick wit and a healthy appetite.

Each weekday for the past six years, he has looked forward to visits from Meals On Wheels volunteers. He likes to chat with them when they deliver his salt-free hot lunches and cold, bagged dinners.

“You can put this in capital letters,” Crook says. “It’s the best thing since popcorn!”

St. John the Baptist Church in Tipton, Ind. helped establish the local meals program in 1971, and it has provided volunteers ever since. Ten parishioners take turns making home deliveries in February and November.

Parish council member Virginia Baker has been involved since the very start, 40 years ago. On a recent Tuesday, Crook’s house was one of her six stops. She picked up the packaged meals at IU Health Tipton Hospital in Tipton, Ind. at 11:45 a.m., then drove to the north side of town.

At each stop, she retrieved a customized hot lunch from the insulated carrier in the front seat of her SUV, and a cold meal from a cooler in the back seat. She walked them to the door of each elderly client.

“When there’s snow, Mr. Crook keeps the walk clean for us,” she said.

Crook just smiled. “I can’t say ‘thanks’ enough,” he told Baker. “I’m sure glad you do it.”

Just down the street, Baker delivered lunch and dinner to William Nelson, 88, a widower and retired furniture upholsterer. He’s been getting Meals On Wheels meals for 10 years.

“It helps me quite a bit,” he said. “I didn’t know much about the kitchen. I could boil water and fry an egg.”

The story began in the fall of 1971, when parishioner Rita Helmuth met with then-pastor Father John Bouvier to talk about starting a Meals On Wheels program.

Father Bouvier supported Helmuth’s proposal. Various organizations enlisted volunteers, clients signed up for meals, routes were established, and a full schedule of deliveries began in 1972.

Baker said that the volunteers provide a vital service. The meals, prepared at the hospital, are well-balanced and inexpensive: a hot lunch is only $3.25 a day; lunch with drink, dessert and side dish is $3.85; full lunch with sack supper is $4.75. All local seniors are eligible.

But there’s a social aspect, too. Sometimes, the Meals On Wheels volunteer is the only visitor that a shut-in sees all day. If no one comes to the door, calls are made on cell phones to make sure that everything is OK.

“Most people are waiting at the door for you. You know the ones who can’t. Some are bedfast, so you put it on the table,” said Baker, who also volunteers at the federal veterans’ hospital in Marion, Ind.

“You take time if they want to talk, but some are right there; they want their meal, they’re ready to get their food,” she said.

Naomi Malston, who has coordinated Tipton’s program for the past seven years, said that 10 local churches provide volunteers. They drive their own cars and donate their time and gasoline.

“Without volunteers, we couldn’t do it — there is no way,” Malston said.

As St. John the Baptist volunteer coordinator, Baker provides Malston with detailed lists of daily drivers, and contact information for backup drivers. Even in the worst of weather, the volunteers show up and make their deliveries, Malston said.

“Their church is wonderful. I don’t think they’ve ever had a no-show,” she said.

Father Bouvier asked Baker to serve as coordinator, and 40 years later,” I’m still doing it,” said Baker, a former real-estate appraiser and county assessor. “I probably should be teaching someone what I really do.”

In February, her 10 drivers — mostly retirees — worked two routes, five days a week. Each route had either 10 or 11 clients, but in the past, there have been up to 15 clients per route.

Stops were clustered geographically, so a route could be completed in less than an hour.

“People ask you what church you’re with, but some already know,” Baker said. “Some (clients) are on for only two or three weeks while they recuperate after knee surgery or whatever, then they can cook their own meals again; others get meals for a long time. My mother was on Meals On Wheels for 10 years.

“People are so appreciative when you bring their meal,” Baker said. “Often, we’re the only person they see all day. Their families may live out of town, or they aren’t here every day. It’s a life-link for them to have us. They can’t say ‘thank you’ enough.”

An added bonus comes when the students at St. John the Baptist School make crayon drawings on the dinner bags. Some of the clients even hang the artwork on their walls.

Without Meals On Wheels, she said, “some (clients) would have to go to a nursing home. They have no family here, and they don’t want to go to the nursing home.”

Hubert “Hube” Tragesser has been a Meals On Wheels volunteer since the beginning. He’s been a member of the parish council at St. John the Baptist Church even longer — starting in 1969.

“I saw in the Sunday bulletin that they needed volunteers, and I had the time to do it,” he explained. “It’s a pleasure to feed people and make them happy by doing volunteer work. Some of them, nobody else goes there.”

Tragesser, a farmer, also volunteers with Caregiver Companion, Habitat for Humanity and other organizations. At St. John the Baptist School, he helps fill backpacks with food for families in need.

He and Baker have been awarded Good Samaritan “heart” awards for their community service.

Tammy Sullivan said she doesn’t know what she’d do without such people.

Her parents receive Meals On Wheels meals. Her father has cancer and her mother suffers from a nerve disorder. Both are diabetic.

“It’s a real convenience. It helps to know they’re eating correctly,” she said.

She and her sister both work during the day. They juggle their work schedules to get their parents to doctors’ appointments and to administer medications.

Meals On Wheels, Sullivan said, is a godsend for her entire family.

“It helps to know that someone is checking on them during the day,” she said. 

Tragesser sees volunteerism as a way to repay God for the many gifts he has given.

“You can’t do too much volunteering,” he said. “You can’t outdo the Lord. Whatever you give, he gives more.”

Posted with permission from The Catholic Moment, official newspaper for the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana.

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