MANATEE -- Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee County has 255 delivery routes where homebound seniors wait for a daily hot meal from a volunteer.
Currently, 87 routes urgently need volunteer drivers, said Jill McGarry, a Meals on Wheels PLUS spokeswoman.
"Assistance from the community is crucial to our operations," said Maribeth Phillips, chief executive officer of Meals on Wheels PLUS. "We simply could not provide the nutrition and support to local people in need without the help of our volunteers."
Two volunteers Tuesday said being a driver means making a commitment.
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"It's extremely rewarding," said Marlena Johnsky, who has delivered hot meals for more than 22 years. "I get more out of it than the people I deliver to."
John Wallace of Bradenton said: "The majority of the people you deliver to are constantly telling you how appreciative they are. You really get to know people on your route and become friends with them."
Candidates to deliver hot meals must provide transportation.
"We've had volunteers deliver routes on bicycles and motorcycles," McGarry said. "We offer assistance loading the thermal bags that hold the meals into the volunteer's vehicle. We have carts that help as well."
Volunteers are offered mileage reimbursement, lunch at half price and are recognized at an annual Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon.
All volunteer drivers un
dergo background checks and must have a valid driver's license, McGarry said.
Meals on Wheels PLUS received a $33,697 grant from William G. and Marie Selby Foundation to help improve its meal tracking, client information and volunteer ranks, making the organization more efficient.
"The purpose of the grant is to upgrade current computer hardware and software to help track meal preparation, client information, transportation, volunteers and donations," McGarry said. "Before the new hardware, all of our programs had separate records and databases. With the new hardware, our programs will now interface, allowing us to work more efficiently and will ensure accuracy."
Johnsky and Wallace say the hardest part of the volunteer gig is having to say goodbye to people who don't get much company and want to chat.
"I am torn because I have to deliver my meals or they will get cold," Johnsky said.
Wallace delivers 21 to 26 meals Thursdays and Fridays and also 16 frozen meals for the weekend. He starts about 10:30 a.m. and usually finishes by 12:15 p.m.
"I tell people who might be interested to come drive with me and get a feel for it," Johnsky said. "A couple of people have done it. Some people don't like to be committed to something weekly or daily. But I just love it. I think it's the most wonderful opportunity to help people who can't get out or who can't cook."
For additional information about volunteering, call 941-747-4655 or go to mealsonwheelsplus.org.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.