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Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee celebrates 40th anniversary


Twelve TV dinners and an 18-inch oven in a church opposite an historic cemetery.

That's how Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee began 40 years ago.

What a contrast to the commercial-sized kitchen with seven ovens the nonprofit houses today, bringing 1,100 meals daily to the homebound, disabled and elderly.

Helen Blue, its founder, remembers that well as the agency prepares to celebrate its anniversary.

"There was a tremendous need among the elderly in that area and my goal was to provide a service," said the 87-year-old, now living in Franklin, N.C. "Most older people don't have any family. We wanted to be that family to them."

So Blue got direction from the Meals on Wheels in St. Petersburg, left her job with the Manatee Opportunity Council and joined friend Jean McKnight to get it going.

Rogers Memorial Church, then at 236 Ninth Ave. W., across from Major Adams Cemetery, was their starting point.

"They let us use their little kitchen and the oven was a small thing that could only

do six meals at a time," Blue said. "As soon as they were ready, Jean picked them up and delivered them and I started with the next six.

"We did that for three months, then we spread out as we got more money, kept growing and moving. It took off."

When Blue retired after 21 years as executive director -- Rev. Kenneth Baar was its first board chairman -- the organization's budget was $2.3 million with 44 employees and 600 volunteers.

"We couldn't have done it without volunteers," she said. "That and the generosity of people in Manatee County."

Today nonprofit's budget is $8 million with 75 employees and more than 600 volunteers. It also includes the Food Bank, which started on Blue's watch, Daybreak Adult Day Center, Renaissance on 9th and Senior Wheels.

Between Meals on Wheels, the Food Bank and its partners, approximately 2,500 people are fed weekly.

Did Blue foresee such growth?

"I hoped it would," she said. "I wanted to make sure we were involved in the community."

A noble objective said a longtime Meals partner.

"They're providing the most critical safety net services for older adults and that's food," said Maureen Kelly, president and chief executive officer of West Central Florida Area Agency on Aging in Tampa. "But they also had the vision, creativity and commitment to expand their reach in all kind of services that benefit people in Manatee County."

One of the many is Frances Reed, 77.

"They're good to people here, those who can't cook, can't walk," she said. "I'm a diabetic and have high blood pressure and they give me meals that help with both."

Donna Scott, another Meals client, is blind.

"If I didn't have them, I'd have to microwave some little old thing and it might not be the right thing," said the 62-year-old. "What I also enjoy is having somebody come by, someone to talk and laugh with you. That's good. They're like a friend."

Which is important, according to Cheri Coryea, Manatee County's director of neighborhood services.

"Just the daily contact with volunteers might be that one little thing that keeps that senior going each day," she said. "Even if it's only for a few minutes, it makes it bearable for them. They may be the only people they see or ever hear from."

That bothers Marlena Johnsky, 78, a volunteer for 18 years.

"It's difficult not being able to spend more time with each of them," she said.

Ed Sipowicz, a volunteer for 21 years, has done just that, driving Meals clients to doctor's appointments, shopping, plays, etc.

"Helping people is something I believe in," said the 85-year-old. "Whatever they need I do. They can call me. It keeps me from feeling sorry for myself."

Terry Wells can relate.

After moving here in 1991, she and her loved ones began to feel blue before Thanksgiving with the rest of the family up north.

Someone suggested volunteering with Meals on Wheels, they did so and were smitten.

Wells now chairs the board of directors.

"This is an organization that not only can affect the community but can also affect your own family," she said. "It absolutely hits you and makes a difference ever day."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix.