Since the coronavirus pandemic began raging, older folks have been urged to stay home as much as possible. Grocery stores have created special hours for seniors. Volunteers are doing phone check-ins with elderly neighbors in their communities.
Despite this, some intrepid souls in this most vulnerable age group are venturing out on a regular basis to help people less fortunate than they are. They’ve been doing it for years. The pandemic isn’t stopping them.
Meals on Wheels in Vernon, operating out of Trinity Lutheran Church, is run by Caroline Clark. Clark, 75, manages 30 volunteers, many of whom are senior citizens. They deliver meals daily to about 70 homebound seniors in Vernon, Manchester and Ellington. Often, the Meals on Wheels volunteer is the only human face the customers see all day.
Clark, who lives in Tolland, said many volunteers have increased the number of shifts they do each week because she lost other volunteers who had health issues or were immunocompromised. “It’s been wonderful how the others stepped right in to help,” Clark said.
Phyllis Goehring, a 79-year-old Vernon resident, has been volunteering for 18 years. She used to volunteer one day a week, bringing food to eight people in Manchester. Now she does two a week.
“My sons aren’t too thrilled about it, but I actually think I’m safer doing this than going to the grocery store,” Goehring said. “My sons do that for me.”
Susan Mason, who also is 79 and lives in Vernon, delivers meals to six Vernon residents twice a week. She used to do it once a week. She has been doing it for eight years with her 80-year-old husband, Tom, driving her.
“The man who was doing my route on Mondays has only one lung, so he didn’t feel comfortable doing it anymore,” Mason said. “Tom and I are both healthy. It feels good to be able to do this.”
Mason used to volunteer at Rockville General Hospital, too. But RGH sent its volunteers home when the pandemic began. Another volunteer gig, with Vernon Reads, ended when schools closed. Now she has time to do two Meals on Wheels days. She spends her free time making masks.
Another 79-year-old Vernon resident, George Smith, has been doing Meals on Wheels runs for 14 years, since he retired in 2006. He used to volunteer at RGH, too.
“My kids, they’ve told me not to go to the grocery store. But I do this,” Smith said. “I enjoy meeting the people. It gives me something to do, and it beats the boredom.”
Since the pandemic began, Smith’s wife, Mary, has been joining him on his once-a-week meal runs. She used to volunteer at RGH, too. Now she drives George around to make his 10 deliveries.
“I drive the car, and he gets out and brings them the food,” she said. “It’s over quicker that way.”
Volunteers arrive at the church in the morning, as does the Meals on Wheels truck from Hartford. They gather customers’ meals, put them in their cars and go make their rounds.
Nowadays, all volunteers wear masks and gloves. They use sanitary wipes to clean the bags before handing them over. Volunteers used to go into customers’ homes to chat and ensure customers were healthy. Now, food is delivered with minimal contact, and most chatting and wellness checks are done by phone.
Clark is the only paid employee in the Vernon Meals on Wheels hub. She works part time for Community Renewal Team, which provides essential services to people in Hartford, Tolland and Middlesex counties.
Trinity Lutheran’s minister, Tim Oslovich, also started making food runs two or three times a week to fill the volunteer gap. “He also meets the truck, brings food in, disinfects the doorknobs and tables,” said Clark, who is mobility challenged and can’t do those things herself.
Clark is at the church four hours a day, five days a week, rallying the volunteers and, since the pandemic began, making sure all surfaces are sanitary and everyone keeps a distance from each other. She also keeps a phone nearby in case some of their customers need help.
Patricia Hetu of Manchester has received Meals on Wheels for more than three years. She befriended her former deliverers, who came into her home to chat. All of them stopped delivering due to the virus. Her new volunteers don’t come inside, and Hetu’s mobility is limited.
While Hetu doesn’t know any of her new volunteers well, she appreciates the care they take safeguarding their and her health.
“If I don’t know any of them. It’s got nothing to do with them. It’s got to do with the virus,” Hetu said. “Except for when I get up to get the meals, I’m sitting in my chair about 100 percent of the time.”
The volunteers say that their work is more than just delivering food.
“I started doing this right after I lost my husband. It was something to do so I wouldn’t feel sorry for myself,” said Goehring. “When you help someone, you’re helping yourself.”
Mary Smith said she enjoys the interaction with customers. “It’s sad that so many people are alone and don’t see anybody,” she said. “Seeing you at the door, hearing your voice, contact with another person is a bright spot in their day.”
Clark said the volunteers do their duties because “it’s a feeling that goes beyond fear. “There’s a job to be done, so they do it,” Clark said. “I don’t really think on a daily basis, ‘I’m going to get the virus.’ I just go do the job.”