Kristi Thien and the staff and volunteers at Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels paced nervously in the parking lot.
Would anyone come for hot meals, the first since the pandemic began?
Senior Life Resources Northwest, which runs Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels, was about to pass out hot meals to seniors in a drive-thru format. The nonprofit has delivered frozen meals but no fresh ones since Covid-19 forced it to alter how it provides meals to seniors 60 and over.
“We’re getting hot meals out the door again,” said Brian Kinner, food services manager, clearly pleased.
Kinner walked staff and volunteers through the safety measures to keep them and guests safe from contagion. Masks for everyone, at all times. Gloves for volunteers, changed as need be. Sanitizing clipboards and pens between guests.
An outbreak tied to Meals on Wheels would be a disaster. Thien and Kinner weren’t taking chances.
“We want to be showing how good we are with PPE,” he said.
The drive-thru hot meal event on Sept. 23 marked a return to providing ready-to-eat meals to seniors at its Fowler Street quarters in Richland.
It was supposed to begin a week earlier but was called off because of hazardous smoke. Meals had been prepared and staff stood by in case anyone didn’t get the message about the cancelation, but no one came.
Sept. 23 was different.
The sky was clear and the mood happy.
Hot boxes full of turkey dinners and cold boxes full of fruit and milk and bags of frozen meals were at the ready. Kinner and his team of blue-shirted volunteers gathered nervously, waiting to see if anyone would come at the 11 a.m. start time.
Thien was optimistic.
Meals on Wheels resumed hot meal distributions in Walla Walla in late summer. It got an earlier start than the Tri-Cities since it has lower Covid-19 infection rates. Demand was strong and vehicles lined up around the block in Walla Walla.
“I would love to have that problem here,” said Thien, nutrition services director.
Thien said that after months of hunkering down and distributing frozen meals by the week, Meals on Wheels was ready to test the waters. By September, Tri-Citians were out and about.
If the hot meal program succeeds, Senior Life Resources Northwest will consider adding more home visits and expanded services.
“We have a lot of people who are sick to death of frozen meals,” she said.
But would they come to Fowler Street, north of Columbia Center?
The team served 47 meals Sept. 23 and 63 meals Sept. 30.
At the advertised start time, Carol Charvet drove in, navigated her way past orange cones and greeted Meals on Wheels staffers by name. A Meals on Wheels volunteer herself, Charvet was picking up a hot meal and pack of three frozen ones not for herself but for her husband.
Charvet doesn’t eat meat, but he does. The turkey dinner and three frozen meals will spare her from preparing his, she said before driving off as another visitor pulled in.
One after another, clients rolled into the parking lot. They checked in, exchanged friendly messages and updates and were asked if they needed a week’s worth of frozen meals or just half.
They then drove on to the next station, where Zulema Zavala and Patty Williams waited with bags ready.
“It’s so satisfying to see people go with hot meals,” said Zavala, a site manager and cook who also distributes in Pasco.
Williams, assistant site manager for Prosser, said she was happy to drive into Richland, calling the drive-thru “really fun” and a chance to reconnect with those who rely on Meals on Wheels.
Williams said she has a heart for seniors and has missed her people since sites closed.
“I love old people. I’m one of them,” she said.
In this pandemic year, Senior Life Resources is counting its blessings, Thien said.
It canceled its most important fundraising breakfast last spring. Thien feared a devastating loss of revenue.
But sponsors kept their commitment and donations came in from the public and through the federal coronavirus relief bill via the state.
“This community is just incredible,” she said. “I think we earned as much as we would have with the breakfast.”
Thanks to that generosity, Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels has no waiting list and no income requirements. Those who rely on it are welcome to make donations, but they are not required.
Covid-19 brought new demand for its services from people fearing food shortages and grocery store visits
Fear has abated and clients report their freezers are full. The hoarding slowed as people saw their fears of shortages didn’t come to pass, Thien said.
Meals on Wheels dishes up about 20,000 meals a month and is preparing to add a new commercial freezer at its complex. It wants to store enough meals to supply demand for four to six weeks, breathing room if it is forced to shut down for any reason.
If 2020 has been heartwarming, 2021 could pose a new financial challenge.
Thine said Senior Life Resources will need to raise $600,000. It’s a heavy lift and she worries compassion fatigue and long-term unemployment will dampen support.
Senior Life Resources Northwest received a 100 rating out of 100 from Charity Navigator, which monitors nonprofits.
To donate, go to seniorliferesources.org/donate or mail checks to 1824 Fowler St., Richland, WA 99352.
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