Meals on Wheels could use some more wheels

By 11 a.m. the tables holding the cinnamon rolls in the basement of the First Christian Church are full of people. Around 40 volunteer drivers for the Senior Townhouse Inc. Meals on Wheels programs sit around them, holding their coffees and conversations. Their Coleman coolers wait in a line leading to the church’s kitchen, where the program’s two cooks put the final touches on the day’s lunch. Beef stew, coleslaw, cornbread and brownies for dessert. The atmosphere has a cozy energy.

The only problem for the Meals on Wheels program is that there are not enough of them. The privately funded nonprofit program, which has existed in Salem since 1970, runs on the energy of 65 people per day, nearly all of which are volunteers. Meals on Wheels delivers to over 500 elderly or disabled clients on 42 routes, Monday through Friday.

For a $3 per meal fee, clients are provided with what program administrators call “cornerstone” meals, containing half to one-third of the daily caloric requirements for a sedentary adult. The meals try to reflect the tastes of their clients, offering old favorites such as Salisbury steak and contemporary twists, like rosemary potatoes and ziti. The program even offers vegetarian and diabetic options within its menu.

Tall and genial, Gary Zwicker is a retired Army Lt. Colonel, who has been driving for the program for 20 years. He loads a program-issued cooler into his SUV and drives his route throughout a south Salem neighborhood, delivering nine meals in styrofoam containers. He receives a fresh itinerary of his familiar route when he shows up at the church every Thursday,  which shows any new additions and any particulars he needs to know about the clients. It is noted that one woman has a dog to be aware of, though Zwicker describes it as just a friendly beagle. When he begins delivering, doors are opened by people who accept the food happily and thank him graciously. Then he is on his way again. Most deliveries take less than three minutes.

Although all kinds of volunteers are welcome, according to Administrative Director Heidi Wold, the program is in particular need of volunteer drivers. They are hoping to recruit volunteers who are willing to donate approximately an hour and a half of their time, at least one day a week. Volunteers should have their own cars and a valid driver’s license. There is also a need for substitute drivers who are willing to be ‘on call’ certain days.

Wold describes the volunteers as coming from all walks of life: professionals on their lunch breaks, stay-at-home parents, and active retirees.

“They are people who may never have met anywhere else, but they meet here. They recognize each other from the inside out.”

To volunteer for the Salem-Keizer Meals on Wheels program, contact (503) 364-2856.