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Volunteers Keep Meals On Wheels Rolling During Pandemic

Rachel McDevitt
Bob Sharland holds out a meal ready to be delivered in Hummelstown, Dauphin County, on Thursday, April 2, 2020. Meals on Wheels volunteers are taking extra precautions and minimizing contact with clients to help reduce spread of COVID-19.

Meals on Wheels volunteers are essential to the people they serve, even outside of a pandemic.

But the COVID-19 crisis is limiting the valuable social connection that volunteers make with clients.

Chester Rose, who oversees volunteers in the Hershey area, said they’re taking precautions, like wearing gloves and wiping down coolers with sanitizer, as well as minimizing contact.

He said, frequently, meal recipients who struggle to get up would leave their doors unlocked so the volunteers could bring their meals inside.

“That has stopped,” he said.

Volunteers are now instructed to leave meals in a bag or cooler at the door.

JoEllen Myers, who has been volunteering with Meals on Wheels for 38 years, said a meal delivery is the most interaction some clients get all day.

She said calls to 17 recipients to notify them of the new procedures took her an hour and half.

“Because they want to talk,” she said. “They’re lonely, you know.”

Linda Sharland, a volunteer coordinator for Hummelstown, Dauphin County, said it’s challenging to limit contact with recipients.

One Friday, they dropped off additional, frozen meals to help people get through the weekend. But that extra weight caused some problems for people with restricted mobility.

Sharland said she ended up helping some people get the extra meals in their homes, all the while asking them to “step back, step back.”

But this social cut-off isn’t just hard on the clients.

“It’s harder on the volunteers, too, because most of our volunteers are delivering meals in the same community in which they live,” said Bob Burns, who heads Dauphin County’s Area Agency on Aging. “So, they do have a desire to speak to them and make sure that they’re okay.”

Burns said demand for meals is increasing slightly, as more people find themselves stuck indoors. There’s also heightened interest in volunteering. But some volunteers have had to take a break for now—often at the urging of their children.

“Many of our volunteers are older. So, they are more at risk, just as our clients are,” he said. “So, our biggest concern has been just making sure each day we can get the meals delivered.”

In Dauphin County, nearly 900 volunteers deliver meals to about 750 people.

Burns said the volunteers are an example of the good news coming out of this crisis.

“Here are volunteers who aren’t even paid who are still going out there every day to make sure that people in their community have a hot meal that day,” he said.

The county ordered protective equipment like gloves for the Meals on Wheels volunteers a few weeks ago, but finding things like masks has proven difficult.

“They are almost impossible to get,” said Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick III. “We’ve placed orders at the very initial stages of this and we’re still waiting for the deliveries of those orders.”

Most volunteers aren’t deterred.

Sharland said she’s not worried about herself because of her faith in God.

“It’s like, he’ll watch over me and we’ll, get through this,” she said. “I think what I’m doing is important enough that I want to continue.”

Read more from our partners, WITF.