A family gathered in the kitchen around hot turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables and stuffing Wednesday morning but no one was eating. The family – members of the Local 44 Plumbers and Pipefitters Union – were helping prepare and package Christmas dinner for nearly 200 seniors in need, to be delivered by the volunteer drivers of Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels.
The union Local 44 members were just one section of the symphony of volunteers and staff from across Spokane County packing the prepared meals into insulated carriers and delivering Christmas dinner to seniors homebound on the holiday.
In addition to dinner, seniors received handmade cards from local schoolchildren and a personal gift.
The morning of volunteering by the pipefitters also allowed for a well-earned holiday for the regular Meals on Wheels kitchen staff. The pipefitters have stepped forward to help assemble meals every Thanksgiving and Christmas for the past five years.
“We want to create an atmosphere of community service within our own group,” said Joe Van Troba, president of the local union.
The volunteering tradition actually began as a job. Meals on Wheels called the union’s business manager, Brett Wideman, because an eyewash station needed repair. He came in and made the necessary fix, and in the process developed a relationship with staff members.
“We saw an opportunity to help not only the families receiving these meals, but the staff that works here. We try to give them some time with their families,” Wideman said. “We had good participation and it’s just grown into (volunteering) every year.”
One of the regular volunteers is Joe Clavel, who said in a world that can be so filled with hate, it feels nice to give back to the community, particularly seniors in need.
“It’s just one less thing they have to worry about,” Clavel said.
One benefit of the occasion is just being in the same room with other union members. Clavel noted that many of the pipefitters are regularly out on the road, leaving little time for group gatherings like the one that took place on Wednesday.
Before the pipefitters stepped foot in the kitchen, much of the prep work was undertaken by kitchen staff on Tuesday. Then on Wednesday morning, while Santa was surely still making his final deliveries, longtime food services director Jerri Horton was awake and working away in the Meals on Wheels kitchen to make sure the food was hot and ready to package for the pipefitter volunteers.
Although members recall a bit of chaos in the early years, Meals on Wheels and the pipefitters have refined their collaboration to ensure each holiday is a carefully orchestrated assembly line of preparation, from the turkey to the cranberry sauce.
After the food is assembled, volunteer drivers filter into the kitchen to pick up their deliveries so they can hit the road before noon.
Meals on Wheels delivers about 800 hot meals throughout Spokane County Monday through Friday and offers frozen meals to help seniors through the weekend. On Christmas, the demand is lower, because many seniors spend the day with family. Still, nearly 200 seniors opted to have their hot meal delivered.
Because the clientele is different on Christmas, Meals on Wheels Care Manager Katie Dalton had to construct 28 entirely new routes for the day.
“It’s a lot of coordinating, because it’s not our regular route. We have to pull from other routes and create something that makes sense,” Dalton said.
When Dalton’s mother was in hospice care, Meals on Wheels stepped in to help. Later, Dalton volunteered with her 13-year-old son, Logan, for about a year before applying for the care manager position.
“For me, it started as wanting to give back. It has personally touched me,” Dalton said. “I knew Meals on Wheels, but seeing them come to my mother, helping my step-dad – it was really tough at the end.”
Dalton said she feels her mother’s presence when she’s at the Meals on Wheels kitchen.
“I don’t know how else to explain it,” Dalton said.
Those served by the organization range from veterans and retired teachers to those suffering from addiction, Dalton noted.
“It doesn’t matter to us or to me,” Dalton said.
Mavis Davis has been delivering Meals on Wheels for more than a decade. Volunteering makes Davis feel like she’s contributing something useful, “otherwise I would probably be a hermit in my house.”
Many of the people Davis delivers to are actually younger than her, but are infirm or otherwise unable to provide for themselves.
“It’s very rewarding for me to be able to do this,” Davis said.
Jeremy Van Lith, wife Darci, and their daughters, Maddie, Emmy and Parker, were volunteering to drive for the first time on Wednesday, but plan to make it a regular event. They brought the seniors on their route some extra goodies, including cookies and blankets.
“It feels good to give back,” Van Lith said.
There is no income requirement to receive Meals on Wheels. A recipient must be 60 years or older, and the organization assesses a senior’s living situation to determine if they are homebound.
In addition to roughly 800 meals delivered every weekday, the organization operates 11 Silver Cafes across the county, which serve hundreds of additional meals.
Steve Yunk, the Silver Cafe operations manager, said the organization is always trying to make area seniors aware of their services. Some are completely unaware that they qualify for Meals on Wheels, while many decline to sign up because they feel that there are others worse off. But Yunk said the organization has the resources to help them.
“We’re trying to reach every vulnerable senior,” Yunk said.