Volunteers help hungry Delaware seniors get food they need

DOVER — Bill Hedderich is 94. He’s at the age where one might think he’s more likely to be receiving free meals than delivering them. But Mr. Hedderich is undaunte d.

Monday through Friday, the Dover resident can be found at the Modern Maturity Center on Forrest Avenue, arriving in the morning to help deliver food to hungry seniors.

Meals on Wheels volunteer for 15 years Rudy Kassel of Smyrna loads a cooler full of baged meals at the Modern Maturity Center.

Meals on Wheels volunteer for 15 years Rudy Kassel of Smyrna loads a cooler full of baged meals at the Modern Maturity Center.

Other volunteers express admiration and pride when speaking of Mr. Hedderich, who has been helping out for 16 years. Not only is he one of the center’s longest-serving members, he plans to continue volunteering as long as he can.

Kent County has hundreds, if not thousands, of elderly Delawareans in need of meal help. As people age, many things change. Retirement approaches. Many individuals are physically limited.
Friends and family pass away.

The end result is that in many cases, it’s easier for the elderly to go hungry. But people like Mr. Hedderich hope to change that.

In central Delaware, Meals on Wheels Delaware partners with the Modern Maturity Center to specifically target the aging population in need. Meals on Wheels, which offers its services in all 50 states, has worked with the center since 1973.

About two dozen volunteers stop by the center in the morning and spend several hours dropping off meals to needy seniors all around the county. New Castle and Sussex counties each have two organizations that work with Meals on Wheels to transport food, but in Kent, sole responsibility is placed on the Modern Maturity Center. Volunteers cover everywhere from Milford to Smyrna and from the Delaware Bay to the Maryland state line.

In all, about 850 meals are delivered daily from Monday to Friday, typically arriving around noon.

Food varies from day to day — because who would want the same thing on a daily basis? — and typically includes a hot item, such as chicken, ham or meatloaf. Items are purchased using money from the government and private donations and are then prepared on-site by staffers every morning.

Dover Modern Maturity Center homebound supervisor Al Antonelli of Kenton and his staff prepare and package meals for delivery.

Dover Modern Maturity Center homebound supervisor Al Antonelli of Kenton and his staff prepare and package meals for delivery.

The center takes pride in the quality of meals delivered.

Carolyn Fredricks, president and chief executive officer of the center, relayed a story of a retired chef was pleasantly surprised by his food.

“‘That salmon you sent today was as good as anything that I prepared at my restaurant,’ ” she said he told the center. “ ‘It’s the only meal I get and I wanted you to know how much I appreciate it.’

“When you get a call like that,” she said, “It just makes you think this is why we do what we do.”

Delivered with a smile

Being elderly, many of the clients are frail and unable to make food on their own, said Andre Woie, marketing and development manager for Meals on Wheels Delaware.

Typically, they live alone and may not have family nearby to care for them, she said. For many, getting a delivery means more than just having something to eat.

“It’s not just about the meal,” she said. “It’s about the volunteers’ companionship and a warm smile.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some people are reluctant to receive help, possibly due to pride or embarrassment,

“One agency said one of their seniors had been a widower for six or seven years and finally called and then the day he got it, he called and was crying, thanking them and said he had essentially eaten cereal since his wife died,” Ms. Woie said. “These stories, sadly, are not rare.”

Seniors who are in need can sign up by contacting the organization, she said. Clients pay what they can and if they cannot afford to compensate the agency, meals are free.

Events held by Meals on Wheels Delaware throughout the year help the nonprofit provide its services. The annual gala held in October at the Modern Maturity Center is a major fundraiser that helps benefit the program.

For the Modern Maturity Center, there is generally a minimum age of 60 for recipients, although rules can be altered slightly. Individuals just out of a hospital in need of temporary meal-delivery services can make arrangements for service.

In Kent, delivery goes only to personal residences, not nursing homes.

“The main focus is to help people age in place and remain independent,” Ms. Fredricks said.

Although the agency does not deliver on weekends, beneficiaries can arrange to get meals for the weekend beforehand. The Modern Maturity Center also will provide emergency items such as crackers in the event of anticipated storms or other weather conditions that might hinder deliveries.

Time and money

Most volunteers, both Ms. Woie and Ms. Fredricks said, are retirees, who often have free time. Older volunteers are similar in age to recipients, meaning they often can relate to the people in need.

But that does not mean others are not accepted. Quite the opposite.

George and Helen O'Brien of Magnolia have been volunteering for Meals on Wheels since September.

George and Helen O’Brien of Magnolia have been volunteering for Meals on Wheels since September.

As people age, and during holidays, the demand for volunteers grows.

“I’m sure every agency will tell you routes are getting longer because more seniors are requiring the need,” Ms. Woie said.

Helpers take one of 13 different delivery routes throughout the county, with the exact path sometimes changing. A set of cards with providing each recipient’s name and address allows volunteers to keep track of who is next on their route. If an individual does not need a meal one day for some reason, he or she can inform the center, which then temporarily removes the card from the lineup.

Helpers typically arrive at the Modern Maturity Center in the morning and move the bagged meals out to their cars. From there, they leave for noontime deliveries, usually with two people to a car.

With the average meal costing $8.50 and the typical donation from a recipient being around 60 cents, people who can provide assistance for free are greatly needed by the center, Ms. Fredricks said.

Gary Dernberger, a Wyoming resident, has been helping give seniors hot meals for 12 years. After volunteering Monday through Friday for seven years, he now helps out two days per week.

Mr. Dernberger said he signed up because his Christian faith compels him to assist others who need it and he was aware of hundreds or even thousands of seniors suffering from hunger in Delaware.

“I wanted to give something back,” he said.

Clients, some of whom are handicapped and thus struggle to make their own meals, are grateful to receive food, he said. Some have no family in the area, and the volunteers are “the only ones that they see all week.”

It is not unheard of for volunteers to find elderly patients lying on the floor in need of help, he said.

Some of the recipients cannot afford to move to a nursing home, he said, and so Meals on Wheels is allows not only an avenue for food but also provides brief companionship and assistance in the form of a friendly face.

For Mr. Hedderich, delivering food for 16 years, it’s been very rewarding.

“I get blessed more times than I do in church,” he joked.

He compared the delivery work to a job and said that after months and even years of providing food to some of the same clients, he is treated “like part of the family” by some.
The Modern Maturity Center has in the past worked with area companies so employees can make deliveries during their lunch hour. Dover Air Force Base also arranges to have personnel assist the agency every couple of weeks.

Because the center cannot afford to hire people to drive around Kent, the need for unpaid helpers is paramount.

Ms. Woie noted that just about everyone has an older friend or relative who needs assistance, meaning that for many, helping hungry seniors is personal. Ms. Fredricks had similar sentiments.

“Volunteering is one of the best Christmas gifts you can give,” she said.

And, it’s a gift you can give year-round.

Those who need help can contact Meals on Wheels Delaware at 656-3257 and the Modenr Maturity Center at 734-1200.

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