— Meals on Wheels PLUS is in dire need of volunteer drivers right now to get hot lunches to home-bound seniors.
But the urgency isn’t reflected in the day to day operations of the not-for-profit, where teams of employees go about their jobs with precision.
At 10 a.m. on a recent weekday, trays move along a conveyor belt, each tray containing a nutritious portion of green beans Almondine, creamy egg noodles, juicy peeled carrots and one four-ounce, lemon-breaded talapia.
By 10:20 a.m., the trays, about 1,000 of them, are stacked one upon another in insulated bags and wheeled behind the cooking area at 811 23rd Ave. E., Bradenton, where volunteers pull up in their vehicles five days a week to pick them up.
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The volunteers then drive 52 routes all throughout Manatee County to deliver these “meals on wheels” between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 750 needy senior citizens.
Lina Bracht, Meals on Wheels’ volunteer engagement manager, said last week that Meals on Wheels desperately needs 20 new volunteers to drive routes and drop off meals.
“Every day we are adding 10 new home bound seniors who need meals,” Bracht said.
Right now, seven routes need to be filled, said Joe Stoddard, the enthusiastic vice president who runs the operation.
Said Stoddard of the open routes: “Some are in Palmetto. Some are in Lakewood Ranch. Some are on the barrier islands. The need is there.”
Along these 52 routes are 720 real people, each older than 60, each with a disability, each with a life story and most with a need for some human contact, Stoddard said.
The other 280 meals go to dining sites where seniors meet and adult day programs around the county.
Stoddard said last week that his clients’ need for the human contact that comes with a food delivery may be more important than the lemon talapia.
“The volunteer’s visits may be their only human contact for the day,” Stoddard said.
U.S. Marine has a heart for seniors
When there is an open route or a shortage of drivers, Ted Moran is asked to fill in.
Moran has been a Meals on Wheels volunteer route driver for the last 16 years. He is 83 and moves like a jungle cat. Maybe that’s because he is from New York City and grew up in traffic. He served in the U.S. Marines in the 1950s. Because of his flexibility to run routes, Stoddard and others call Moran “Our champion.”
“I retired and said to my wife, ‘I gotta do something. I can’t hang around all day,’ ” Moran said recently just before running his usual Palmetto route of seven deliveries, which takes him roughly 90 minutes.
When Moran enters a client’s house in Palmetto, he puts on a little show kind of like Tony Bennett or Dean Martin walking onto the stage at “The Tonight Show” back in the days of Johnny Carson.
The seniors’ faces brighten. He is like one of their generation’s stars. He is handsome, witty, always says something funny, asks them how they are doing and then assures them he will be back soon.
“I just love it,” Moran said of his runs, which he does at least two but sometimes four or five times a week.
“They are all sweethearts,” Moran added of his clients. “I assume this is the only meal some of them get. They have become my friends.”
On this day, Bettie Furnice of Palmetto tells Moran that her neuropathy is kicking up. It is painful for her to stand and cook. Her dog barks as Moran comes to the side of her house to hand her the talapia dinner.
“It means a lot to me because I don’t walk so well,” Furnice told Moran as she moved the dinner near her ever present crossword puzzle book.
Furnice is 71. The meal from Moran is her main food of the day, she says. Her daughter cooks bacon and eggs to supplement what she gets from Moran. On Friday, Moran or another driver will bring her two frozen meals for the weekend.
“The food is good,” Furnice said. “I’m glad I have Meals on Wheels. Some of them talk to me and I enjoy it.”
She laughs about the salt. Meals on Wheels’ dieticians keep the sodium level down.
“It doesn’t have enough salt in it,” she said with a grin. “I put my own salt in it.”
Patricia Simmons, also of Palmetto, smiles and jokes with Moran as he delivers her meal.
“It helps me,” Simmons said of the meal. “I’ve got really bad circulation and my back hurts really bad. I don’t eat breakfast.”
Simmons said she likes to talk to Moran and the other delivery volunteers.
“They check up on me,” she said.
Nymah Keyes of Palmetto is in her 80s. She is on food stamps.
“She is an interesting, intelligent lady,” Moran said. “I enjoy our visits.”
Keyes brightens as Moran approaches.
“I would talk to them more but they have to get with their schedules,” Keyes said when asked how important the chit chat is.
Keyes lives alone.
“Meals on Wheels means a lot to me because I have very little funds and was scammed in my retirement,” Keyes added. “I only have Social Security and they are not increasing it. These meals have been a true Godsend.”
Adopt-A-Route has been a success
Bracht’s job is to recruit volunteers. an idea that someone had before her has turned out to be reaping dividends.
It’s called Adopt-A-Route and the idea is that an organization or company can get involved and help, Bracht said.
Inspired Living, Easter Seals and West Bradenton Rotary Club are among the successful examples.
Bill Grossman of the West Bradenton Rotary Club said the experience of driving routes has been unforgettable.
“My wife and I like to do it as a team,” Grossman said. “We normally do go in teams of two. It takes us an hour and a half from getting ready to pick up the meals to being through. My wife is the one who actually delivers the meals and people really look forward to seeing her. When we are able to, we speak to the seniors and take any concerns they have back to Mr. Stoddard.”
Bracht said a valid driver license is the first requirement to be a volunteer. She will interview the candidate. A background check is done.
Volunteering can be a life-changer, said volunteer driver Ashley Boccuzzi.
“For me, the most exciting part of my day is being able to knock on someone’s door and ask how they are doing,” Boccuzzi said. “I believe that for a lot of our clients, that is the only time they see someone during the day. That might be the only time they get a smile.”
Potential private or corporate volunteers are asked to contact Bracht at email@example.com or 941-747-4655, ext. 1230.