Meals on Wheels nourish independent living — Part 4 of 8

Meals are delivered to seniors throughout the Black Hills, ensuring they receive at least one hot meal a day. Pioneer photo by Jaci Conrad Pearson

NORTHERN HILLS — For some elderly and home-bound members of the community with health setbacks that would otherwise be debilitating, life-changing events are turned into a process of healing and regaining strength, thanks to the far-reaching, Hills-wide benefits of local Meals on Wheels programs.

The Lead-Deadwood Meals on Wheels program, administered through Lead-Deadwood Regional Hospital, serves around 20 individuals between the two towns.

Joette Vancas, who prepares the meals in the hospital kitchen and works with volunteers daily to ensure meals are delivered, said Meals on Wheels recipients are mostly elderly and those who can’t get around very well.

“The doc(tor)s might put them on our list temporarily if they’ve been in the hospital until they get their strength back and are back on their feet,” Vancas said. “For most of them, this is the only meal they get for the day, because they can’t cook for themselves. A lot of times they can save some and eat it for supper. But a lot of times, this is the only meal they get. A lot of people wouldn’t eat if they didn’t get their meal from us for the day.”

Erin Septka, operations manager of food and nutrition for Lead-Deadwood Regional Hospital, said that the Meals on Wheels program is the most valuable one the organization has for the community.

“We deliver 365 days a year, weekends, holidays, you name it,” Septka said. “It’s part of our Regional Health purpose — helping patients and our communities live well.”

With 60 volunteers from 10 community organizations, including Kiwanis, local churches, and others, the Lead-Deadwood Meals on Wheels program is rolling right along.

Volunteers arrive at the hospital daily around 10:45 a.m. to pick up and disburse the meals to the community, and to sign up for the program in Lead-Deadwood, call Septka at 717-6035.

Bonnie Rosander, site manager for the Western South Dakota Senior Services Meal Program in Belle Fourche, said that her organization serves around 20 meals per day onsite and an additional 20 through the Meals on Wheels Program.

“First off, they’re homebound, and there may be a caregiver who runs out of steam, or a person, who, due to their health, is confined to their home, or they might be mobile within their home, but need a little help, not a lot, but just a little bit,” Rosander said. “We’re part of DSS (Department of Social Service) and no person age 60 or older will be denied a meal.”

The Belle Fourche Meals on Wheels program is dependent on donations from clients as they can afford it.

“The Festival of Trees really, really helps us out,” Rosander said, mentioning other organizations that donate to keep the program alive, as well. “We also send meals to a site in Newell.”

Rosander said that for the two dozen or so people that depend on Meals on Wheels, the program is very important.

“For some homebound, the only human contact a lot of times they get are volunteers,” Rosander said. “They tell them good morning, visit a little bit, and keep us posted if someone looks like they’re not doing well. It’s interaction we all need. Just to be solitary at your house or apartment gets a little old.”

A woman who has been on both ends of the Meals on Wheels program — serving as a volunteer for five to six years, Bernita Grohman of Belle Fourche is now a Meals on Wheels recipient.

“I think they’re great,” Grohman said. “When I first got on it, I had been very sick in the hospital and couldn’t cook or anything. This guaranteed me one full meal a day, and all the nurses thought it would be good to get me on this, too. I couldn’t drive anyplace to get food either, so this has been very helpful.”

What’s more, Grohman thinks the meals are delicious.

“The meal I had today was a nice, thick pork chop, broccoli on the side, sweet potatoes, and a cup of fruit cocktail for dessert, and bread and butter today, too,” she explained. “One day during the month, they also send a birthday meal, which means it comes with cake and ice cream to celebrate all the other people who have birthdays that month.”

All in all, Grohman said the biggest benefit for Meals on Wheels recipients is that the older ones didn’t have to move around their homes so much, cooking and such.

“We were scared they’d fall,” Grohman said. “We could also make sure they were getting their full nourishment. And as big as they (meals) are, you could make two meals out of it. That way, they’re getting the right amount of nourishment. At least we knew we were feeding them. We’d make sure they looked good, call and check on them, and they knew company was coming. Some didn’t get a lot of company. They really enjoy that.”

Rosander said that Belle Fourche is in dire need of volunteers. Right now, there are only four who deliver the 20 meals Monday through Friday. To sign up to receive Meals on Wheels, call 892-6285, and to volunteer, call Rosander at 892-5472.

Gayle Bercier, nutrition manager for the Spearfish Nutrition Site/Meals on Wheels, said that the facility delivers around 60 to 70 meals Monday through Friday and serves 70 to 150 meals per day onsite.

“Sometimes it’s the only meal or contact they have during the day,” Bercier said. “A lot don’t have family in the area. This way we know they’re getting a nutritious meal, someone who checks on them. We’ve had drivers find people on the floor and have to call an ambulance. It’s a huge benefit. As far as the congregate meals, it’s huge camaraderie. They get together, socialize, many of them sit at the same table in the same place every day. They look forward to eating with their friends and they get a good meal.”

A challenge that Bercier has identified is in regard to funding the program, as participants are asked to pay by donation only and according to their ability to donate. In essence and in many instances, the program is being provided for free or at a loss to the nutrition center.

“What I’m seeing is a new generation of participants coming in that don’t donate to the program,” Bercier said. “Most of the elderly who are in their 70s, 80s, 90s donate. The meals are free. It’s totally nonprofit. If they can’t afford to donate, they don’t have to. But most of them do their best even if they can’t afford it. I have one guy who’s in his 90s, he’s blind and makes $700 a month. Between his rent and everything else he has to pay each month, he really can’t afford to do anything, but each month, he sends me an $80 check, which I send back and tell him someone else paid for his meals. Then, there are some people who do have enough but don’t donate. Unfortunately, it’s the generation in their 60s who just don’t have it … it’s very frustrating and donations are way down. It’s going to be a huge problem for this program in the next 10 years. It’s a struggle. Even with the money we get — the state reimburses us $3 per meal and it costs $8 to make them, so even if someone donates, say, $4, we’re still in the hole. It’s a very worthwhile nonprofit for anyone who wants to donate.”

To donate to the program or to sign up for meals or to serve as a volunteer, call Bercier at 642-1277.

Dick and Mona Tinker of Lead organize Trinity United Methodist Church’s volunteers for the week the church takes delivering Meals on Wheels roughly every five weeks. Although the Tinkers have just been organizing this effort for the past three years, prior to that they delivered meals, something they’ve continued to do for more than 20 years now.

“It’s something we always enjoy doing,” Mona said. “You get to meet people. … It’s helping people. We visit with them a lot, if we have time.”

“They get a good, hot meal once a day,” she added. “We’ve done it for so long … That’s part of our life. And I think most of the other volunteers would say the same thing. When I call, they want to help.”

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