Satisfying more than just appetites, Meals on Wheels connects volunteers, seniors

People need to eat. This is a fact. The Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency (AEOA) has been making this easier for homebound senior citizens through the Meals on Wheels program, one of its senior nutrition services. Volunteers go out daily and devote their time and gas money to deliver hot and frozen meals to the program’s patrons.

Not only do meals specifically designed by dietitians get delivered, but the program also acts as a safety service.

“For some people, this is the only interaction they have all day. Our goal is to deliver meals and help senior citizens stay in their own homes, but it’s also a wellness check,” Kirsten Ryden, a coordinator for AEAO, said.

In these winter months, and especially during the holidays, fill-in volunteers and some more permanent volunteer opportunities are available. AEOA is always looking for new and enthusiastic people to join in its mission.

“Our volunteers are dedicated and awesome,” Ryden said.

Almost every day, cooks show up at 5:30 a.m. to prepare and package meals to be sent out for the day. Around 100 meals are sent out just for Meals on Wheels, though senior dining meals, where senior citizens are welcome to gather and eat together instead of having the meals delivered, are also offered.

Combining all the programs AEOA offers, 220 meals are served each day, all made at the Lincoln Park Community Center and delivered by a group of volunteers.

“Most of our volunteers are also seniors,” Ryden said. “They have a connection with the people, the time, the expertise and the skills.”

Ryden likes to call these senior volunteers “55 and better.”

Not all volunteers are 55 and better, though. “You don’t see many young people volunteering very often, but it’s always good to see when they do,” said senior nutrition supervisor Jill Johnson.

Johnson is the one to call if you ever want to volunteer. “We have three routes (for Meals on Wheels), which means we need three volunteers per day, and then one driver to deliver to our other sites.”

The volunteers all have a couple things in common: an energetic demeanor and dedication. “I was just talking to one of our volunteers yesterday, and he was saying he’s been doing this for 17 years,” Ryden said.

Most people stick around for a while because they find the work to be rewarding.

“It feels good to do something for people,” said Shane Delich, one of the program’s newest volunteers.

“Aunt Debbie (a cook for Meals on Wheels) called us up a few months ago asking if we’d help out for a shift, and we just kept doing it,” Delich said.

No two could be more spirited than the duo of Delich and Ron Rilling, natives of the Duluth area. Rilling shows up at 9:45 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays to deliver meals, either accompanied by his wife or stepson, Delich.

All it takes is a single ride-along with this pair to get a feel for why people choose to volunteer with Meals on Wheels.

Pulling up next to the entrance, Delich and Rilling load the meals prepared by Aunt Debbie into their vehicle and set off.

They know all their stops by name, how each person wants the meals delivered, and they pay special attention to which ones like milk and which don’t. This is important.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was a huge day for them, as holidays are the few times Meals on Wheels isn’t running, but they are sure to provide frozen meals to those who usually get the service on Thursdays and Fridays. Weekend meals are also delivered frozen, which means people can receive up to four frozen meals along with their usual Wednesday meals.

For Rilling, finding his way around to the different houses is easy. “I’ve lived here over 40 years. I should know the area,” he said.

Both men like to refer to the west side of Duluth -- their delivery zone -- as “the friendly West End.”

It’s easy to tell how at home they feel when they’re out delivering.

“Everyone likes it delivered differently, “ Rilling explained as he drove along. He is the driver, and Delich is the delivery man.

It was true, there were several houses where coolers had been set up outside for the food to be placed in, and some wanted them delivered inside.

The first house of the day had simple instructions. Just go onto the porch and set the meals on the chair to the left.

A quick knock on the door to “tell them their food’s here,” as Delich said, and the pair was off again.

Seeing the coolers set outside, or actually seeing the patrons, is a vital reason Meals on Wheels exists. This is the wellness portion of the job.

For each patron, there is an emergency contact listed if anything should seem out of the ordinary. This is something Delich and Rilling take seriously, as they’re quick to ring up the patrons if the door isn’t answered when it’s supposed to be or if no cooler is left out.

For the most part, though, Meals on Wheels is just an overall rewarding experience for the volunteers, who create lasting relationships with the people they help serve.

At one house Delich chuckled. “She always gets all dolled up whenever she knows we’re coming,” he said.

Sure enough, the most adorable elderly woman with her hair and makeup all done answered the door.

At every stop, Rilling could be heard saying, “Oh, yeah, he’s a good guy,” or, “She’s a really nice lady.”

You come to know the quirks of the different people, like an eccentric woman named Virginia who had a sign taped to her door reading, “If I’m not home, try the casino.”

She happened to be doing her hair when her meals arrived, so Delich just waved through the window before taking his leave.

Not only do the volunteers bring something to the lives of the patrons, the patrons really brighten the days of the volunteers. There wasn’t a moment when the father-stepson duo wasn’t cracking jokes and genuinely enjoying their time.

With their extensive knowledge of all the bars and eateries on the “friendly West End,” there’s never a dull moment. Especially when they decide to take a pitstop before going back to the Lincoln Park Community Center to check out the Christmas auction going on next to Mike’s Cafe, which happens to be their favorite.

Back at headquarters, the camaraderie is apparent. One of the cooks even baked a loaf of apple bread for each volunteer.

This is a place where you can feel a true sense of community and where giving back actually feels like it matters.

Plus, you meet some pretty amazing people.


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