GRASS VALLEY, Calif. November 6, 2012 - "It's very important to me," Dorris Dunlop says as she follows her walker into the living room of her small apartment near Grass Valley. Her brown hair is on its way to grey. A stroke and a knee replacement limited her ability to get around and do things for herself and made home delivered meals a blessing.
"Loving and kind" is how she describes her relationship with the Nevada County Meals on Wheels program.
Having a hot meal brought to her door five days a week... "It's wonderful!"
Each year the Gold Country Community Services Center's senior nutrition program home deliverers 34,000 freshly prepared in-home meals to Nevada County seniors. Volunteers drive ten delivery routes covering Nevada City, Grass Valley, Lake Wildwood, Penn Valley, Rough & Ready, Cedar Ridge and Lake of the Pines. The volunteer drivers cover a total of 225 miles a day.
The average person who gets a hot meal is 80 years old and there are 140 of them in the Meals on Wheels program. Some 60 volunteers prepare and deliver the food.
What Dorris says about the program is really about the volunteer drivers who visit her every weekday with hot food. "The drivers are wonderful. I've gotten to know a lot of them." And that's like having a friend come by.
"In addition to a hot meal, our drivers provide peace of mind to the seniors we serve," Sandy Jacobson, executive director of Gold Country Community Services, says. "They know at least one caring person will be checking on them."
Kitchen work starts 7 or 7:30 a.m. on Old Tunnel Road near the Brunswick shopping center as volunteers prepare 60 meals for area preschools. Then between 40 and 60 noon meals are made ready for seniors who drop in to the High Noon Café at the center. Next come 140 home delivered meals to take to Nevada County's homebound seniors. All told, some 45,000 meals a year come out of that kitchen.
"We serve about 300 different people in a year's time," Jacobson explains. "For instance someone might come out of surgery and be unable for a period to prepare their meals. So, we provide that person with meals for, say, eight weeks. We take a lot of people on a short-term basis." She estimates that of the 140 daily meals, 120 recipients are ongoing participants in Meals on Wheels.
Started in 1987, Nevada County's Meals on Wheels program gets half its funding from state and federal governments. "It comes to us by way of the Area 4 Agency on Aging," Jacobson says. "This year our contract with Area 4 is they will fund 89 meals a day. Each meal costs $8.08 to prepare, package, and deliver. State and federal funding pays $5.75. There is absolutely no cost to the person receiving the meals."
"They have to be over 60 to be eligible for the program, homebound with no in-home assistance - paid or family - and have a deficiency in daily living activities," she adds. "Primarily they have to be unable to walk and shop and prepare food."
If only half the needed funds come from Area 4 - the government - where does Meals on Wheels find the rest?
"About 15 percent of the balance is made up by small donations by meal recipients who can afford to contribute," Jacobson says. "Then we hold a variety of fund raising events to help."
Local businesses and United Way also help with funding. "United Way is a huge contributor. We partner with the Nevada County Food Bank so on Fridays we are able to go there and look through their commodities."
Sometimes it's tight.
"We had a lack of funding last year - a big drought," she says. We went through the Area 4 funding, we went through the contributions from the local community and in April and May we were wondering how we would make it to July. Then California Organics stepped up and provided meals for people we couldn't take into the Meals on Wheels program."
Does she anticipate a repeat of the financial shortfall?
"I want to be an optimist and say we're going to get over that hill... but the hill keeps getting taller," Jacobson says. "The number of seniors here is twice that of any other county." And growing. The state average of people over 65 is close to 12 percent while here it's 22 percent. "We have a huge demand and I see that demand growing as our senior population grows older. It's going to make an increasingly big demand on all senior service providers."
Members of the community can help keep Meals on Wheels rolling, in a number of ways: Adopt a meal delivery route for a month for $100, or adopt a senior for a month - providing 21 meals - for a $168 donation. Providing a year's worth of noon meals - 250 of them - to a single senior can be done with a $2,000 contribution.
Earl Jensen lives in a mobile home park near Grass Valley where's he's just started getting noon meals from the program. "So far it's fine," he says. He gets a hot meal brought to his door every weekday. "On the weekend its leftovers."
Legally blind and in his nineties Earl was building and maintenance superintendent for the Modesto Bee newspaper before he retired to Nevada County. It was his responsibility, mechanically, "to see we got a paper on the street every day." He retired in 1980.
Earl wears a tan cardigan and jeans as he waits for his food, which usually arrives between 11 and 11:30 a.m. "Lot of times I put it in the fridge and reheat it for my evening meal." he says.
The drivers all seem very congenial and he knows and appreciates they're not only delivering food, but also keeping an eye on his welfare. "If you're in a situation like I am, you can't drive, you have to depend on someone else. Meals on Wheels is a good answer," Earl says.
Earl's car still sits in his driveway and sometimes a friend will use it to take him where he needs to go. At home in his apartment Earl listens to recorded books and magazines on a machine that speaks to him, even telling him the strength of the battery.
As colder weather approaches another of the Gold Country Community Services Center's programs, the Senior Wood Project, becomes very important.
"Around 44 volunteers collect downed trees from people's property, split the wood and deliver it to needy seniors," Jacobson says. "The demand for wood is growing as the project becomes more visible." About ten percent of the project's firewood is sold to the public, and that pays the cost of the program. "The people who buy it know that they are also supporting a greater cause," she adds.
A small group of volunteers with pickup trucks take the wood where it's needed, to keep seniors warm, free of cost.
But, as is the case with food, the demand for wood often exceeds the Wood Project's ability to help everyone who needs assistance. "We had 65 new applications for firewood this year," Jacobson says. "We were able to accept 35."
As Nevada County's seniors become able to do less for themselves programs to feed them and keep them warm are able to fill a good share of the need. But only a share.
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