Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Much more than just delivering a meal;’ Meals on Wheels Spokane assists vulnerable population during ongoing heatwave

Cindy Black, a volunteer with Meals on Wheels, delivers a hot meal to Linda Lamsus’ home in northwest Spokane on Thursday. This is the first week that Lamsus has received meals with the program.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Don and Cindy Black pulled into the Meals on Wheels parking lot Thursday morning, loaded up their pickup truck with hot meals and set out on their delivery route in north Spokane.

They have volunteered their time for two years to help elderly, disabled or homebound people. Don is the wheel man and does the driving; Cindy drops off the meals and visits with the clients.

“It’s just the best way that we know how to love your neighbor,” Don said.

The couple are among nearly 300 volunteers who help the organization serve more than 500 meals every day, said Brianna Schoenthaler, volunteer coordinator at Meals on Wheels Spokane.

The organization has assisted people who cannot meet their own nutritional needs by providing them with fresh, hot meals delivered right to their front door since 1967.

“We like to volunteer and we’re passionate about people getting fed,” Don said. “You can preach to them, or try to teach them, but if their stomach is growling they won’t hear a word you say, you know?”

As Cindy said, the service is about a lot more than just the meals. They drop off books, cleaning supplies, pet food and anything else a client might need. Ahead of the Spokane’s current heat wave, they delivered box fans to help ensure their clientele stay cool. Don noted that the interactions the clients have with volunteers may be the only human contact they have that day.

“That’s just not something you think about when you’re younger,” Don said. “It’s always the little stuff that means the most.”

During last year’s historic heat wave, 20 people died in Spokane with the majority being elderly people who died in their home, according to the 2021 year-end report from the Spokane County Medical Examiner. Owen Esperas, executive director of Meals on Wheels Spokane, said seven of those deaths were clients.

Esperas said Meals on Wheels has a system in place to check on client’s well-being, especially in situations such as the current heat wave where they are particularly at risk.

If a volunteer does not make contact over the phone or face-to-face while delivering a meal and notices previous meals that were not collected, they report back to the main office. Rhonda Noble, a member of the care management team, said they then contact the client’s emergency contact. If they do not hear back from the client or the emergency contact after two days, the team calls around to local hospitals to see if the client was admitted. If the client was not admitted to a hospital, the care team contacts law enforcement to conduct a welfare check.

During their time as volunteers, Cindy and Don have had to go through that process a couple of times. Cindy said it can be scary when they notice something is off but understands those situations come with the job.

As they snaked through north Spokane Thursday, every client on the route greeted Cindy with a smile. Some had their front doors cracked in anticipation of their arrival, and others waited on the front porch eager to have some human interaction.

“There’s a couple of people who when we first started delivering were very slow to the door, but recently it’s like they’re waiting to open the door. It’s almost like you don’t have to knock or ring the doorbell or whatnot.”

Stella Lee, 87, has lived in Spokane since her parents immigrated from Italy after World War I. She lives alone in a spacious two-story house on North Sutherlin Street, the same one she bought with her late husband decades ago, and has a son who lives in the area who often comes by to help.

“I’ve taken Meals on Wheels for quite some time,” Lee said. “I think it’s wonderful. They’ve been very on time and there’s not a lot of waiting.”

Lee said she was managing the hot weather just fine, and that her house remains cool due to the shade from surrounding trees. Cindy said they often stop and chat when delivering to Lee, who seems to enjoy the connection. She recalled how Lee once brought out a flapper dress to show her, and how it moved in the sunlight.

“It was sequined and just beautiful,” Cindy said. “And she invited my husband and I to go dancing with her and her friend. She’s a lot of fun.”

Before Cindy hopped back in the pickup truck to continue on their route, Lee extended another invitation to go dancing to celebrate both Lee’s birthday and Cindy and Don’s anniversary which are just a few days apart in October.

The next stop on the route was a few streets over at Linda Lamsus’ house. It was Don and Cindy’s first time delivering there, as this is Lamsus’ first week in the program.

Lamsus lives with her daughter and grandson, and said she has enjoyed the food so far. All of the meals are prepared each morning at Meals on Wheels Spokane’s headquarters at 1222 W. Second Ave. downtown before being individually packaged for distribution. She said the heat has not affected her too much, thanks to a working air conditioner and the years she spent living in Southern California.

After a few more deliveries, Don and Cindy arrived at their last stop for the day: 85-year-old Karen Benish’s house that she shares with her two cats. Benish joined the program last July, after her husband of 61 years, David Benish, died in June 2021. The couple owned and operated the Tennis Shop of Spokane for 25 years before retiring in 2019.

Benish moved to Spokane with her husband in 1995 from California, where the couple owned their first tennis shop. A longtime tennis player, her husband taught her how to play, even though she said the first few lessons were a little boring.

“I said, ‘all you do in this game is walk around the court and pick up the balls,’” Benish said. “Until you get to where you can control the balls, it isn’t any fun at all.”

Although she no longer plays, Benish stays up to date on the latest trends on the court. Benish and Cindy talked about the rising popularity of pickleball, her left-handed husband’s tendency to play right-handed, all while Cindy and Don delivered her meal for the day. The couple arrived just as Benish’s caretaker, who stopped to thank them for volunteering, was leaving for the day.

Benish misses her husband a lot. She said the visits with the Meals on Wheels volunteers are some of the best parts of her day, and that each does things a little differently. One volunteer made her a handmade card using a photo of her rose bush, another drops off cat food if she sees Benish is running out and another always stops to talk to Benish about her flourishing garden. Benish celebrated her birthday last week, and even received a few gifts from the volunteers.

“It’s fantastic,” Benish said. “I have some interaction with another adult, so that’s really nice. If I didn’t answer the door, they would alert somebody that I didn’t answer the door. So it’s much more than just delivering a meal.”