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Prince William Meals on Wheels: Delivering Food and Compassion

By Val Wallace, Contributing Writer

“Most of them are unable to get out of the house, and my heart goes out to them. You have to have a lot of compassion [in] this job,” said Bob Mitchell of the clients he delivers meals to as a volunteer for Prince William Meals on Wheels.

The Manassas resident, who’s been delivering the program’s meals for three-and-a-half years, chose to volunteer after he MealsOnWheels_03retired from his federal job and found himself at home “bored and depressed … doing nothing,” Mitchell said. “I decided that I needed badly to get out of the house and to help others.”

Mitchell is one of about 93 volunteers for the local Meals on Wheels, officially called the Home Delivered Meal Program, said Sue Gilbert, site manager of the agency’s Manassas Senior Center. Gilbert is in charge of the program, along with Kathy Ambrose, site manager of the agency’s other senior center, located in Woodbridge.

The Prince William Area Agency on Aging oversees the local Meals on Wheels, along with more than 20 other programs designed to assist area seniors and help improve their quality of life, Gilbert said. The agency is part of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.

Cooks at each senior center prepare the program’s meals, which are delivered once daily at lunchtime Monday through Friday to Meals on Wheels’ 240 clients throughout Prince William, Gilbert said. During the fiscal year that ended June 30, volunteers, whom Gilbert described as the “backbone of the program,” delivered about 32,000 meals, she said. That’s an average of more than 133 meals per client.

She described the target clientele as “adults 60 years and older who are homebound, basically unable to prepare a meal on their own without difficulty, of course, and who are unable to participate in the congregate program, meaning that they can’t come to the senior centers.”

For those who can leave their homes, the agency’s Congregate Nutrition Program provides seniors age 60 and older with lunch Monday through Friday in each center’s dining room. Last fiscal year the centers served 17,000 lunches to a total of 892 congregate program clients, Gilbert said. Those age 55 to 59 can also eat lunch at the centers for a small fee ($5.75), she added.

Gilbert said licensed dietitians develop all meal plans. Each meal“meets a third of the DRI, which stands for the Dietary Reference Intake,” she said. “Whatever makes up that meal is based on the nutrients.”

Meals on Wheels goes beyond providing a nutritious meal. “In addition to delivering a hot meal, [the volunteers] do a daily check on folks, and oftentimes [they’re] the only person the client may see in a day,” Gilbert explained. “They bring back to the center any information that they feel is important in terms of the clients’ well-being. If there are any concerns … we pass it right onto their social worker.”

Each Meals on Wheels client is assigned to one of the agency’s four specialized social workers, called supportive services specialists, said Courtney Tierney, director of the Prince William Area Agency on Aging. Becoming a Meals on Wheels client starts with a call to the agency at 703-792-6374, where one of its three information and referral specialists will begin an assessment process.

“If it is clear that [the caller needs] somebody to come into the home to complete the assessment, then a supportive services specialist is assigned,” Tierney said.

The program’s goal is “to help people in our community remain in the community in their place of choice for as long as possible,” Tierney stated. She said there’s been a bias in federal and state funding toward institutionalization, but “that is shifting towards the community, which is a good thing. … There is support [and] long-term services available … and one of those supports is Meals on Wheels.”

Meals on Wheels receives federal funding under the U.S. Older Americans Act of 1965, which mandated the program nationally, Tierney said. The program is also funded by local government and donations from participants and community groups, said Gilbert.

Gilbert added that Meals on Wheels and congregate program clients are not charged. Instead, they are asked to donate whatever they can afford based on a sliding chart of suggested donations according to monthly income.

Despite donations and funding, “we couldn’t operate the meals program or the senior centers without volunteers. They are vital to our operation,” Tierney said. “We’re always looking for volunteers to deliver meals, and we welcome businesses, too, if a business wants to accept a route once a week.”

Mitchell, who volunteers every Thursday, delivers to 12 clients on his route, which takes him about three hours to complete “because I talk so much,” he laughed. “You get to know the people on your route,” he said. “I’m doing more than just delivering food. I … give companionship.”

He’s also alert to problems or needs, which he addresses immediately if he can or else reports to Gilbert, he said. One MealsOnWheels_27example: “A woman actually said to me, ‘I’m so lucky. I just got a phone call, and I won $100,000. All I have to do is mail them $3,500.’ I said, ‘Don’t do that whatever you do,’ and I … told Sue, [who] sent a case worker out,” he said.

For wheelchair-bound Julie McDonald, a client for almost two years, the program has been a blessing. “Thanks to Meals on Wheels, I’m fed daily and well, and safe. It really gives you a sense of security that there will be somebody popping by, even if it’s just for five minutes,” said McDonald, a Manassas resident. “They’re like guardians.”

McDonald said the meals are delicious, and she receives a monthly menu listing the meals and what day each will be delivered. There’s a wide variety, she said, and “the volunteers who deliver them are just the nicest people. … They’re caring. They’re considerate. They’re polite. … They’re extremely dependable. … They make my life so much easier.”

Freelance writer Val Wallace, of Manassas Park, is a regular contributor to Prince William Living and is also on the magazine’s editorial staff. She can be emailed at [email protected].

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