CLERMONT -- When Irene Johnston turned 100 this month, she knew Meals on Wheels would remain a regular part of her life, as it has for years.
But Johnston, a Clermont resident with a sharp memory who appears decades younger, isn’t the one on the receiving end. Instead, she’s the one delivering hot meals, generally a meat-and-potatoes style meal with greens and a dessert, to seniors 40 years her junior who have trouble leaving home.
“I love it,” Johnston said about bonding with the people she encounters who don’t realize how old she is. “There’s one little lady. She got a card from one of her children. She got a picture, and she showed it to me and she said, ‘Honey, when you get as old as I am, you’ll have pictures like that to look at.’”
Like Johnston, many Meals on Wheels deliverers are as old or older than the people with limited mobility they serve in a program that feeds about 1 million people nationwide and is expected to be even more in demand as baby boomers age. Young people also volunteer on occasion, such as a teenage deliveryperson with the Osceola County Council on Aging.
Still, retirees account for the majority of volunteers because of the commitment and timing involved in serving meals. Most programs, which receive funding from donations and government grants, hand out meals Monday through Friday mornings. That makes it difficult for people who work or go to school to volunteer. For example, a Meals on Wheels program organized for Orange County residents by the organization Seniors First depends on 350 deliverypeople, most in their mid-60s, to provide 1,000 meals a day as the call for the meals continues to soar.
The same can be said for other Meals on Wheels programs across Central Florida, where hundreds of people are on waiting lists for meals.
“The need has just grown exponentially,” said Sherry Fincher, executive director for Meals on Wheels, Etc., which serves Seminole County. “It’s just awful.”
The age range for volunteers in the Seminole program, based in Sanford, is evolving as the group seeks to work with corporations to engage employees of all ages to participate.
“That area has grown over the years,” Fincher said.
It’s a special treat for seniors who receive meals to be greeted by a young person, said Wilda Belisle, who directs the Meals on Wheels program run by the Osceola County Council on Aging.
“The seniors love the young people,” Belisle said. “It’s the grandkids they don’t get to see.”
She said the Osceola program has a number of young volunteers. One is 17-year-old Ian Valentin, who volunteers every weekday.
“Some of the senior citizens, they tell us stories of what they’ve done in the past and what they did for their life,” said Ian, an 11th-grade student from Kissimmee. “It’s really interesting. It’s a learning experience.”
Logan Goulett, marketing coordinator for the Meals on Wheels Association of America, said volunteers often form a bond with those they serve.
“They really create a close connection with them,” Goulett said.
Johnston, who spent most of her life in Davenport, Iowa, and moved to Lake County in 2003, said it can be tough to lose friends she has made through the program.
“You come in some mornings and they’re gone or passed away,” said Johnston on a recent morning as she delivered a meal of spaghetti and meatballs, green beans, bread and chocolate cake to 86-year-old Dot Huber of Clermont.
Johnston, a widow with three daughters, said she hopes to continue volunteering for years to come and keeping up a youthful lifestyle that includes having pizza and a beer every Saturday night, doing her own housework and serving the community around her.
“I try not to act like it,” said Johnston, about being a centenarian. “I’d be in bed most of the time if I acted like it.”