Difference Maker: More than just a warm meal

Published 6:14 pm Friday, November 9, 2018

For Meals on Wheels coordinator, feeding seniors isn’t just a job, it’s a mission

Polk County’s Meals on Wheels program is a well-greased operation thanks to Gail Dyer, the program’s nutrition coordinator.

Every weekday, Polk County citizens not only look forward to a hot and nutritious meal — they depend on it.

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In addition to this anticipated lunch, they also have someone checking in on them. Many recipients live by themselves and welcome this chance to have someone come to their door.

The Meals on Wheels program might go by different names, but that’s the one most familiar to everyone. What might not be as familiar is just how important this organization is.

Gail says they serve nearly 200 people each weekday. Most of those are the home-delivered meals, but the program also serves regular senior citizen participants at their congregate sites at The Meeting Place in Columbus on Carmel Lane and at the Green Creek Community Center at the site of the old Green Creek School. On average each year, the Polk County program serves about 24,000 home-delivered meals and 12,000 at the two sites.

Gail and Haley Suskauer, the senior services manager for The Meeting Place Senior Center, are both dedicated professionals. Haley has been in her position with the county for just a few months, while Gail has been with the program in one role or the other for 11 years.

Gail, a native and lifelong resident of Polk County, is the perfect person for this job. She knows the county’s highways, byways and country lanes. She’s traveled them all.

Gail pushes the belief that they want to be more than just a hot meal service. She makes good on this principle as she assesses each request for Meals on Wheels service that includes a home visit.

Gail might notice that someone needs help with a home repair, with transportation for a doctor’s appointment, or that someone doesn’t have heat on a cold winter’s day. She and Haley help put these folks in touch with the various services available in Polk County through a variety of private and public agencies. She also thinks ahead to make sure food is in the home if a winter-storm is predicted.

Gail also does her best to make sure the pets of Meals on Wheels participants don’t go hungry, either. They noticed that sometimes the participants would share some of their food with their pets.

So Gail works with the Foothills Humane Society to collect donations for dog and cat food that can be delivered along with the people kind.

There are eligibility qualifications for the Meals on Wheels program, including being at least 60 years old, homebound and unable to shop or cook. But there are other ways to qualify depending on individual circumstances.

There is no income cutoff level — everyone should have the opportunity to eat a decent meal.

All of the meals prepared a day for both Meals on Wheels recipients and those served at the two senior centers meet the one-third recommended dietary allowance set by the FDA.

In addition to Gail supervising the entire process, including menu planning, there’s a dedicated staff working either full or part time.

Drew Murphy is the kitchen coordinator and serves as head chef, and is assisted by James Metcalf and Mimi Mehlmauer. All of the staff not only help behind the serving counter, but can also be found out front, carrying trays of food to those diners unable to stand in the serving line.

While the professional staff at The Meeting Place works out all the details, including budgeting, grant writing, volunteer recruitment and training, and coordination of everything, it’s the volunteers who make this possible.

As with many organizations, volunteers are in short supply, though.

The Meals on Wheels program could use 20 to 30 volunteers to cover all the routes, which can vary from a few miles to many. It’s possible to volunteer just a couple of times a month, once a week or serve as a fill-in delivery person.

Volunteers deliver more than food — they deliver hope and cheer and a smile to our neighbors from all walks of life.

“We want to provide more than just a hot meal,” Gail says.

It’s obvious just how much she means this.

To learn more about The Meeting Place and the Meals on Wheels Program, including referring someone for help or to volunteer, people may call Haley or Gail at
828-894-0001. •

Mark Levin has recently retired from a career in education and, along the way, has had a lifetime of experiences, earning a buck as a photographer, videographer, author, musician and camp director. You can follow his blog about people and places in the Foothills at FoothillsFaces.com or on Facebook.