Apache Junction’s Meals on Wheels program needs volunteer drivers


Gary Jacobs knows first-hand that drivers for the local Meals on Wheels program do more than just drop off food.

One driver saved his life.

Mr. Jacobs served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from 1967 to 1972. He is confined to a wheelchair due to injuries he sustained in the military and other ailments and has daily caregivers come to his home to help out, he said during an interview.

About eight years ago, he felt fine during a visit from his morning caregiver but shortly after she left, he says, his apnea — a temporary stoppage of breathing — kicked in and he couldn’t breathe.
Luckily, his Meals on Wheels driver, Butch, arrived at 11:05 a.m. sharp as he did every day Monday through Friday. Butch called 911. Paramedics quickly arrived and transported the ailing veteran to the hospital where he was treated and eventually recovered from the incident.

“It’s not just a meal; it’s a wellness check,” said Mr. Jacobs, who continues to receive meals delivered Monday through Friday in addition to frozen meals to eat on the weekend.

Although neither Mr. Jacobs nor the current staff at the Apache Junction Active Senior Center, which runs the local Meals on Wheels program, can remember Butch’s last name, his impact on his client remains indelible.

“That’s one of the overlooked benefits of the Meals on Wheels program,” Traci Gruenberger said during an interview. “We have the opportunity to make a substantial difference in someone’s life, sometimes finding them in need and making that 911 call.”

Ms. Gruenberger is the COO of East Valley Adult Resources, the Mesa-based organization that operates the Apache Junction Active Senior Center. The center is inside the Apache Junction Multi-Generational Center, 1035 N. Idaho Road.

Ms. Gruenberger said the program in October delivered 1,495 meals to about 70 participants.
She said the program needs four to five more volunteer drivers to deliver meals to participants on the four routes that have been established in Apache Junction.

Volunteers need to be at least 18 years old, have a good driving record and be willing to donate at least three hours one day a week. They need to obtain a Class 1 fingerprint clearance card, which the center will pay for.

“If there are a couple of friends who would like to volunteer together we’d be happy to work with them,” she said.

Volunteers will receive on-the-job training and will ride along with a staff member or a seasoned volunteer driver until they are ready to take on the route on his or her own, Ms. Gruenberger said. The training includes how to handle food and how to handle emergency situations that the volunteers may encounter.

“Sometimes they get that gut feeling that something is not right in a household and they have to go with that,” she said.

The drivers also deliver dog and cat food for their participants’ pets.

“The feedback we were getting before was that some participants didn’t have money for pet food and so were sharing their meals with their pets, and they weren’t getting the full nutritional value,” Ms. Gruenberger said. “Now that we have the pet food program, participants are feeling healthier.”

She said the program partners with the Cause 4 Paws pet food bank for its supplies.

Volunteers also need to have a friendly and caring personality, she said.

“They need to be compassionate of other people’s circumstances and understand that we have folks in our community who are clearly in need,” Ms. Gruenberger said. “That manifests itself in many ways. Some people are homebound, some are isolated. Our volunteers can have a positive impact on folks in our community.”

Julie Thomas is a delivery person for the local Meals on Wheels program. As a part-time staff member at the active adult center, she receives a paycheck for delivering to the participants on her route, but she says the real payoff is more than money.

“I get paid in hugs,” Ms. Thomas said Nov. 3 during which the Independent rode along on her route. She does not deliver to everyone on her route on a daily basis, she said. On Mondays, she typically has 18 deliveries. On that Tuesday, she had 10 participants on her list.

One person on the Tuesday route had notified Ms. Thomas that she might be moving to an assisted living home. When Ms. Thomas drove up to the complex in which the client lived, she scanned the exterior for signs of the woman — a wheelchair, an outside chair — and saw none.

“No, she has moved,” she said, noting to give the woman’s meal to the next client.  “They don’t like us to bring back the food,” she said.

Ms. Thomas was hired as a driver six years ago. It takes her about an hour and a half to deliver to 10 clients but some days take a little longer.

“Ideally they like us to spend three to five minutes at each stop. My biggest challenge is not having enough time to spend with the people,” she said. “It breaks my heart because I want to bring them all home. There are some people you instantly clicked with.”

Seeing drivers like Ms. Thomas means a lot to some participants.

“I’m not really social so she’s the highlight of my day,” said Chip Tracy, who began the program about a year ago on a nurse’s suggestion after he suffered a stroke.

He receives a meal personalized to his needs as a diabetic, he said. “The food is good. I like the chicken and when they serve breakfast for lunch,” he said. “It’s a blessing.”

To learn more about the Meals on Wheel program and the volunteer driver program, call the Apache Junction Active Adult Center at 480-474-5260.

Reach staff writer Wendy Miller at wmiller@newszap.com

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