Posted: February 23, 2015 at 7:57 pm

By Callie Clendenin, Nickalas Holstein, Dillion Durst and Iman Hasan

Without the Meals on Wheels program, Cindy Gay’s mother would struggle to properly feed herself.

Gay, a 35-year veteran with West Virginia University’s Nutrition Services staff, said her mother is unable to prepare meals herself, and likes that Meals on Wheels’ entrees arrive ready to eat.

“I’m glad she gets (Meals on Wheels). Otherwise, she wouldn’t get a complete meal,” Gay said.

Watch our Prezi about hunger in West Virginia.

More than 70,000 senior citizens in West Virginia struggle to feed themselves, according to Meals On Wheels Association of America’s website. Meals On Wheels, a volunteer-based non-profit, helps feed 46 percent of these citizens by delivering hot meals to their door.

The Morgantown Area Meals On Wheels program was founded out of Scott’s Run Settlement House in 1973 by Reverend Violet Petso, who noticed that many children in the area were going hungry, and began preparing sandwiches for them. However, soon it became apparent that entire families, including the elderly, were struggling with hunger, and Petso began delivering lunches to them.

The program has since expanded into an organization of nearly 100 volunteers, feeding 80 to 90 people in the Greater Morgantown Area. Meals are planned by a licensed dietician and prepared at the Star City Kitchen, where they are picked up by volunteer drivers and either distributed to local clients, or taken to one of the other distribution centers at Goshen Baptist Church or Rock Forge Presbyterian Church.

Drivers deliver meals five days a week, year-round, except on national holidays and during inclement weather, each driving an average of 10 routes a day. All drivers provide their own vehicles, and pay for their own gas and insurance.

Unlike other Meals On Wheels programs across the nation, Morgantown Area Meals On Wheels receives no government funding.

“We raise all the money that it takes to run this operation,” said Myla Bowman, president of the organization. “We get grants and donations from local individuals and organizations. That’s what sets us apart—we’re completely free-standing.”

Clients of the program pay what they can, and there are no age or income restrictions on who may be served. However, most are elderly, disabled or homebound. Due to the limited contact homebound clients have with the outside world, drivers often become responsible for their safety.

“A lot of these people don’t see anyone during the day but their driver,” Bowman said. “If there is a problem, the driver will pick up on it.”

Bowman, herself a driver, recently had one of her clients go missing. Concerned for the client—an elderly diabetic woman—Bowman had her apartment supervisor open the door to check on her.

“We’ve had people who’ve fallen, or weren’t able to come to the door,” Bowman said. “Drivers have route sheets with contact numbers for clients, but if you find a true emergency, you call 911.”

For most clients, the social interaction the drivers provide is their favorite part of the experience.

Since Gay’s father passed away in January, she said her mother really enjoys talking to the delivery drivers because, a lot of the time, they’re the only people she sees during the day.

Ninety percent of West Virginian Meals On Wheels clients say the meals “help them feel better.”

“When we asked clients, ‘What do you like most about Meals On Wheels?’ They all went on and on about how much they love their drivers, and how much they look forward to seeing their drivers,” said Bowman. “They also love the meals, but what they like best is the interaction.”

Many of the program’s volunteers are just as elderly as their clients—some even older. The head cook, Patty T., is 80 years old, and has been with Morgantown Area Meals On Wheels for nearly 30 years. One of the drivers, Evelyn, is 91.

“We’ve had some elderly people delivering to the elderly,” said Eleanor Grubbs-Paull, coordinator of kitchen activity (among other things). “Some of the people on the board are elderly, but they stay on the board until they can no longer function. The dedication of some of these folks is astounding.”

Volunteers for the program are mostly recruited through word of mouth, or personal relationships with existing Meals On Wheels volunteers. Though there are nearly 100 volunteers—including drivers, board members, interviewers, kitchen staff, office workers and shoppers—many people in the program serve multiple roles.

Bowman and Grubbs-Paull are both drivers and board members; in addition, Grubbs-Paull coordinates kitchen activity and personnel, and is in charge of weekend meals and blizzard packs. Bowman delivers meals to 11 routes in a day, and also interviews new drivers and volunteers.

“I wear about 10 hats in this organization!” Bowman said.

Though the program has a shopper and distributors who provide ingredients and produce, Meals On Wheels is always looking to curb spending where possible.

To cut down on food expenses, the program collects surplus produce from local gardeners in the summer. Meals also incorporate day-old surplus Panera Bread, which the bread company donates to Meals On Wheels.

“We’re constantly trying to stay on or below the budget without sacrificing the quality of the food,” Bowman said.