Meals on Wheels volunteers respond to increased demand amid coronavirus pandemic

Before the pandemic, drivers would deliver meals to anywhere between 600 to 1,000 people a day. Now, they’re now serving an additional 300 customers - and that number continues to climb.|

Jim McLaughlin takes his time when he makes deliveries for Sonoma County’s largest Meals on Wheels program.

“I’m a very talkative kind of guy, and so I think I take longer? to do my route than most of the drivers,” he said with a laugh. “I enjoy it. I’ve always been into volunteering.”

McLaughlin, 60, started volunteering for the Council on Aging’s meal program about three years ago, a little while after he retired. He delivers meals to about 25 people on his Rincon Valley route each Friday - many of whom are the same clients he’s worked with since he first started. And on Wednesday, he started filling in for another driver to cover the same route as well.

The program typically serves about 2,000 senior citizens a year, delivering meals to clients who are isolated or homebound throughout the county, Council on Aging President and Chief Executive Officer Marrianne McBride said. But since Sonoma County issued a stay-at-home order on March 17 in the hopes of curbing the spread of the coronavirus, roughly 30 more people each day have asked to be added to the program, McBride said.

Before the pandemic, drivers would deliver meals to anywhere between 600 to 1,000 people a day. Now, they’re now serving an additional 300 customers - and that number continues to climb, McBride said.

Some volunteers are in the high-risk category for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and so are unable to make their deliveries right now. But many others have offered to step up to meet the need - there are about 300 volunteers working for the Meals on Wheels program, McBride said.

“There’s been no shortage of people willing to volunteer, which is pretty darn incredible because it puts them at risk as well,” she said. “But everyone’s practicing COVID-safe meal delivery, and we’re keeping our clients safe.”

Drivers wear gloves and masks to protect themselves and their clients from the virus. They knock on their clients’ doors and set the meal down before backing up 6 feet - that way they can still make sure their clients are able to answer the door while practicing social distancing.

“In different times, it is very common that we’ll have a Meals on Wheels delivery driver who takes out the garbage or changes a lightbulb or lingers for five minutes to stay and talk,” McBride said, adding that the program is usually much more than a meal. “But given the situation right now … we’re limiting the exposure as much as we can.”

Even still, McLaughlin has been trying to lift his clients’ spirits when he makes his rounds. He’s noticed how worried many of his clients have been about the pandemic, so - while keeping a 6-foot distance - he asks them how they’re doing and if there’s anything he can do to help. A lot of clients don’t see or interact with many people during the day, and appreciate the conversation.

“At least half of the value of what I do is just talking to the people,” he said. “It’s far more than just the meals.”

On Wednesday, he handed out candy bars to his clients and even brought his dog, Amanda, along on his deliveries.

“She is just such a big hit to the clients. A couple of them actually keep treats around just for her,” he said. “She makes a huge difference, I think - for me and for them.”

Audre Steinhoff has been delivering meals on the same Santa Rosa route for about eight years. She often sits with her clients and chats with them, and has even helped them around the house if they had trouble working the thermostat or television. But the pandemic has made that “tough,” since she isn’t able to help out in the same way anymore.

Like McLaughlin, Steinhoff still looks for ways to cheer her clients up. While she can’t go into their homes right now, she’ll stand at the door and talk to them for as long as they want.

“I do think that people are a lot more stressed,” Steinhoff, 57, said. “If we can alleviate any of that by talking to them or making sure that they’re still getting their meals, it’s just really important.”

Steinhoff started volunteering for the meal program after she retired as an assistant in a special needs class at the Sonoma County Office of Education. She had previously donated to the Council on Aging, and wanted to get more involved with its programs.

Every Tuesday, she drives out to deliver meals to the 14 people on her route. Her original clients aren’t around anymore, but she’s served some of her current clients for as long as six years and knows them very well.

“I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” Steinhoff said. “If you’re lucky enough to make it to an age where you can retire, you should give back to your community, if you can.”

McLaughlin also emphasized the value of volunteering. He has even brought his son along on some of his deliveries to show him the ropes before.

“It’s been very fulfilling for me to be doing this,” he said. “I make a difference for these people, even if it’s only for a few minutes and cheer them up a little bit.”

Meals on Wheels is necessary year-round, McBride said, since it provides food for many seniors who aren’t able to go grocery shopping or cook for themselves. And in the midst of this pandemic, people need home-delivered meals more than ever, she said.

But the program is more than just a meal - it’s a safety check, and it’s also a way to connect with senior citizens, she added.

“We say the meals keep them healthy, and they do, but it’s the daily human contact that means the world to an isolated senior. And it holds true now to this crisis as well,” McBride said. “You’re sitting home alone, but at least you know that there’s going to be a driver there every day and at least you’re going to have contact with the world, although albeit brief. It’s a pretty critical service.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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