Kristi Thien retired on a high note as nutrition services director for Mid-
Columbia Meals on Wheels, the free senior meals program.
In January, Senior Life Resources, which operates the nonprofit, fulfilled two of Thien’s wishes when it began offering a weekly breakfast and extended services at its cafe north of Columbia Center mall.
By its second week, the Wednesday morning breakfast attracted 19 diners without significant publicity.
Thien brought a lengthy list of dreams when she joined Meals on Wheels in 2009 and kept adding to it when she succeeded Marcee Woffinden as nutrition services director in 2018. She announced she would retire in 2022, which gave the nonprofit time to hire Cara Hernandez, an Eastern Washington University alumna who has served as deputy director for seven months. Thien’s last day was Feb. 3, coinciding with her 59th birthday in late January.
She looks forward to volunteering, hiking, gardening and helping her aging mother and in-laws. She’s ready for her next chapter and is eager to turn the reins over to Hernandez.
“It’s time for someone else to have the privilege I’ve had,” she said.
She called Meals on Wheels the best and most rewarding job she ever had, in a career full of rewarding positions. She once worked in recreation and noted she got to wear shorts to work.
She relishes the little things about serving seniors, like the joy of welcoming people to the cafe.
“It’s just so fun to hold the door open,” she said. The monthly roast beef lunch, which honors birthdays, is a particular favorite and always crowded.
She joined Meals on Wheels almost by accident. As her children grew older, she mentioned to a friend she was looking for a job with flexibility. The friend was a dietician for Meals on Wheels and the nonprofit was hiring.
She joined as a home assessor, which entailed visiting homebound seniors to get them signed up for services. The job was later renamed “service coordinator” to make it sound less threatening.
For the past five years, she’s been nutrition services director, marshaling a team of paid staff and volunteers to keep food flowing to clients age 60 and over. She emphasized the focus on teamwork: “Not a single accomplishment is mine.”
She was less than two years into the top job when the Covid-19 pandemic began its worrying march across Washington state and the U.S in 2020.
Concerned about senior clients, senior volunteers and their families, she decided on March 3 to cancel a March 10 breakfast.
Gov. Jay Inslee would issue the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order on March 23, 2020, but for a few weeks, Meals on Wheels was a standout. Not everyone agreed with her decision.
“I got hate mail,” she recalled.
The shutdown was a difficult time for Meals on Wheels, which closed its cafes and worked to keep the food going by delivering frozen meals.
It set up a delivery service and established a phone buddy system, but she fretted about the missed connections. For some homebound clients, the Meals on Wheels driver is often a lifeline.
“It was nerve wracking to know vulnerable seniors were only being contacted once a week,” she said.
While her pre-retirement wish list is unfinished, she is pleased with what has been accomplished.
This includes establishing a pet food program and offering low-sodium meals. She hopes to see Meals on Wheels offer renal-friendly meals and to give its clients more choices in the meals they get.
It prepares 30 different meals in its kitchen and freezing facilities, but recipients are limited to what is put in their bag.
“I’d like them to get what they want,” she said.
She credits the 3 Rivers Community Foundation with funding pilot projects that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. It had to halt its “memory cafe” program during the pandemic. But it is likely to make a return. The cafe offers a semi-private dining space for people who want to eat in a cafe but are self-conscious about being in public, possible because of Parkinson’s-related shaking or dementia.
It is working to replace a broken TV in the cafe. Thien sees an opportunity to establish movie nights when the new one is in place.
As Meals on Wheels and the community recover from the pandemic, she spent her final months working to rebuild in-person dining.
It reopened its dining centers on May 2, 2022. She looks at the facilities and yearns for more activity.
“These expanded hours, what a shame to have this beautiful facility empty,” she said.
The expanded service includes a traditional breakfast from 8-10 a.m. Wednesday.
Cafe hours are now 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday.
The expansion is supported by grants from the 3 Rivers Community Foundation and Hanford Mission Integration Solutions.
Meals on Wheels is a free service though it accepts donations from seniors who receive meals. Nearly 500 local volunteers support the program.
It delivers hot and frozen meals to homebound seniors Mondays through Thursdays and serves meals at eight dining centers in Benton and Franklin counties.
For more information, call 509-735-1911 or go to seniorliferesources.org.
Daily and Monthly NewsSign up now!