Meals on Wheels short on drivers

Meals on Wheels volunteer Linda Lynn, of Camden, getting ready to make her deliveries Monday from The Modern Maturity Center in Dover. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — Meals on Wheels — and its network of sponsor agencies — is facing a “critical shortage” of volunteer drivers to deliver food in Delaware.

Perhaps worse off, the program’s Kent County’s sponsor agency, Modern Maturity Center, has been severely short of drivers for the past four years, director Carolyn Fredricks said.

“It’s a critical situation right now, we have about 1,200 people per day that get home delivered meals and we have about 100 volunteer drivers,” she said.

“It’s at the point where we’re sending staff like the Meals on Wheels coordinator and nutritionist out to deliver meals themselves. While they’re doing that, they’re not able to get their important jobs back here done. It’d be so much better if we could get more volunteers.”

As for how many drivers the Kent County program needs, Ms. Fredricks says only “a lot.”

Meals on Wheels is an international program that delivers meals to, mostly elderly or handicapped, homebound individuals who are unable to purchase or prepare their own meals. In Kent County, all meals are prepared in the Modern Maturity Center’s kitchen and shipped out to distribution hubs throughout the county where they can be retrieved by volunteers and taken the last stretch of distance to recipients’ doorsteps.

Though there’s a need for more drivers countywide, Ms. Fredricks said the need is the greatest in the Dover area — where the largest concentration of recipients are.

“We probably deliver about 750 meals per day right here in the Dover area,” she said.

Interested volunteers can deliver meals as of often as every day of the week, or as seldom as a few times per month. Meals are usually prepared and ready for pickup every day between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.

“It’s a job that takes about an hour and a half of your time, but it’s very rewarding,” said Ms. Fredricks. “It’s perfect for a retiree looking for something to do. We have a few husband and wife teams that go together so one is the driver and the other is the runner. They also get reimbursed mileage so they’re not putting any wear and tear on their cars that isn’t paid for.”

Richard Stockslager, of Wyoming, among volunteers who deliver meals to persons in need in the Dover area.

After starting work at the Modern Maturity Center 45 years ago as a Meals on Wheels coordinator herself, Ms. Fredericks feels it’s a crucial program.

“It’s so important because it keeps people in their homes rather than in nursing homes,” she said. “It provides a crucial continuum of care. We have people on our home delivered meals program that are 100 years old. Most elderly people want to remain in their homes, mostly because nursing homes can be very costly, but also because it’s where they are most comfortable.”

While Ms. Fredricks can’t say for certain what the cause of the driver shortage is, she suspects that both long-time drivers are “aging out” and younger generations are working later into their lives.

“We’ve had a lot of great volunteers who’ve done it five days per week for many years, but sadly many of them are aging out and some have passed away,” she said. “A lot of people are working into their 60s these days too, so they have less time for volunteer opportunities. The group we’re really appealing to is the group of people who are retired and still active that are looking for a way to help the community.”

Other counties

The sponsor agencies in Sussex and New Castle counties seem to be getting along slightly better in terms of a driver shortage, but all agencies in the state have adopted a “we can always use more” motto.

Sussex County is serviced by CHEER in Georgetown and Meals On Wheels Lewes-Rehoboth in Lewes.

Volunteer drivers getting ready to depart from the Modern Maturity Center in Dover to deliver Meals on Wheels.

As of Friday, Meals On Wheels Lewes-Rehoboth reported that they have about 110 active volunteer drivers servicing around 200 people enrolled in the program. Most of their drivers commit to helping once per week, organizers said.

CHEER, which services the rest of the county, noted that they, like the Modern Maturity Center were frequently paying staff to make deliveries on routes that don’t have drivers.

Conditions are similar in New Castle County where Newark Senior Center services the city of Newark and City Fare/St. Anthony’s Center handles the rest of the county.

Erica Brown, director of City Fare, noted that due to some recent outreach activities, their organization was able to pull back slightly from a “critical” level, but were still much in need of volunteers.

“I think what’s happening is a lot of our volunteers are older themselves and when they get to the point where they need to retire and can’t volunteer, there are fewer young people stepping in to fill their shoes,” said Ms. Brown.

City Fare serves nearly approximately 1,500 people. Although they have a pool of about 800 volunteer drivers, they often have to pay for extra help on days they’re shorthanded.

“We’ve made some progress recently, but there are still days occasionally where we’ll have like 15 to 20 routes without drivers,” said Ms. Brown. “We’ll usually end up filling them with paid drivers.”

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