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Volunteers wage war on senior hunger

By: Gloria Young Journal Staff Writer
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On Monday, the kitchen staff at the Seniors First café arrived at 5:30 a.m. to prepare chicken fajitas, Mexicorn and Spanish rice. It was a typical morning at the Meals on Wheels hub, which puts out 350 meals five days a week. At 10 a.m., vans depart to deliver meals to the other eight senior cafés in the western Placer County service area. Then, at 10:30 a.m. volunteers arrive to pick up the meals going to the approximately 225 homebound seniors. It operates like a well-oiled machine, thanks to the 110 volunteer drivers who handle 20 routes from Lincoln to Granite Bay, Colfax to Roseville. “Without our volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to deliver a hot meal every day,” Meals on Wheels coordinator Brenda Cathey said Tuesday. The day-to-day contact is important for another reason — it’s also a way to check on the clients to make sure they’re OK, she said. Auburn resident Art Hager handles a Monday route that takes him along the Dry Creek Road and Highway 49 corridor. Hager is semi-retired from the tech industry. He works part-time in his wife’s business and is also a Little League umpire He usually delivers a dozen meals, although this Monday, it was down to 10. Deliveries have gone as high as 18 during the year-and-a-half he’s been a volunteer, he said. And he enjoys the job. “It’s a nice thing to do,” he said. “You get to meet people.” He delivers a hot and cold pack at each stop, lingering at the door for a couple of minutes to chat. “They’re all very nice and interesting people,” he said. “They’re people I wouldn’t normally meet and they’re all different.” Ken Garrett is one of the regulars along the route. Garrett drove an 18-wheeler for about 30 years, much of it criss-crossing the Western states. “I started on the East Coast — New York City,” he said. But the traffic got to be too much and it became a hassle even to change lanes, he said. When Garrett’s wife became ill, he gave up the road to take care of her. She passed away in 2002. “I would have loved to go back to work, but I couldn’t get a job because of my age,” he said. Now he lives on Social Security and relies on the meals he receives during the week. “I couldn’t have made it if not for this,” he said. “It’s wonderful.” Another stop was at Bill Parker’s house. Parker, who is wheelchair-bound, quickly opened the door and greeted Hager with a smile. The former Marine and Vietnam veteran lost one leg and most of the other in February 1968 in Hue, during the Tet offensive. He was 20 years old. These days his friendly, easy-going personality permeates the room, but those first few years of adjustment weren’t easy. “I tried going to school, but that didn’t work out,” he said. “Then I did odd jobs. Now I mostly take care of my grandkids.” For Hager, the weekly route has been an eye-opening experience. “Most of us live in our own little world,” he said. “One of the advantages of doing this is you meet people in different statuses.” It has been a lesson in life. Happiness comes from within, he said. “You can be poor and happy and rich and unhappy,” he said. Hager’s route exemplifies the wide spectrum of clients who find themselves in need of meal service, from those living comfortably to others just barely getting by. “For some people, it’s really a necessity,” Hager said. “It’s probably the one hot meal they get every day.” Funding for Meals on Wheels and other Seniors First programs — the Information Line, Friendly Visitors, Health express, and Door-to-Door Rides — comes from the Area 4 Agency on Aging as well as grants and donations, Cathey said. But the programs don’t hit a home run every time. Auburn resident Catherine Walker now refuses to have anything further to do with the organization following an incident last October. Walker, who had been a volunteer for the food program, feels she was abandoned after she fell and injured herself. “I didn’t have anyone to take care of me,” she said. “I called the senior center and asked if they’d bring me some food for a few days after the lunch hour and they refused. They told me I should sign up and it would take a month for the food deliveries to begin.” Walker ended up getting help through her church. Candy Roeder, executive director of Seniors First, explained that state regulations prohibit kitchen staff from delivering meals after food service has ended for the day because of food temperature requirements. But there shouldn’t have been a month waiting period to get on the list, she said. At the same time, Seniors First did try to contact Walker and went to her house, but she didn’t return calls and didn’t answer her door, Roeder said. The Journal’s Gloria Young can be reached at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com. ------------------------------------ . Seniors First Open House What: Seniors First open house and volunteer appreciation. The public is invited. Learn about the Friendly Visitors, Health Express, Senior Café, Door-to-Door Rides and Meals on Wheels programs, as well as tour the kitchen and meet the staff. Refreshments will be served. When: 2 to 5 p.m. Friday, April 23 Where: 11566 D Ave., DeWitt Center, North Auburn. ------------------------------------- Meals on Wheels • Clients must at least 60 years old and homebound. • Suggested donation per meal is $3. • The program is administered by Seniors First, which is considering a fee-for-service program and welcomes the community’s input. • For more information on Meals on Wheels and other support programs for seniors, see Web site www.seniorsfirst.org or call (530) 889-9500