The Robbinsville Irish Heritage Association named John Ward (front, right) as its Irish Person of the Year. The Robbinsville Township Police Department, led by Chief Chris Nitti (front, left) was also named the collective 2020 St. Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshal. RIHA representatives Jim O’Donnell and Dave Doran (front, center) made the announcement Nov. 9, 2019 at the Robbinsville Senior Center.

John Ward grew up with a grandmother who gave back to her community. It’s no wonder he has dedicated his life to doing the same.

Ward, the executive director of Meals on Wheels for Robbinsville Township, will serve as the Robbinsville Irish Heritage Association’s Irish Person of the Year for his contributions to the community.

RIHA celebrates its Irish roots every year with an annual parade on the third Saturday in March—this year’s parade is set for March 21.

In addition to his work with Meals on Wheels, Ward is also part of the Robbinsville Township Senior Advisory Committee, volunteers with Robert Wood Johnson Hospital as a patient relations representative and serves on the hospital’s Patient and Family Advisory Council. In 2018, Ward received the Rotary Club of Robbinsville-Hamilton Vern Applegate Community Service Award.

Ward’s dedication to his community, coupled with his Irish heritage, made him a perfect candidate for the award.

While RIHA celebrates Irish culture, and Irish residents in the community, the organization is inclusive, said RIHA president Jim O’Donnell.

O’Donnell said that the organization first started looking for candidates and accepting nominees in March or April of 2019. RIHA was set on honoring a member of the community who has played a role in helping support the Robbinsville area and beyond.

“One of the criteria of being Irish person of the year is that you have to have a bit of Irish in you,” Ward said.

Ward recently took a DNA test offered through the Robbinsville Senior Center and found out he is 47 percent Irish, 3 percent Norwegian and 50 percent Dutch.

When Ward was growing up, he was closely connected to his Irish roots. After his mom died when he was young, he was raised by his father and surrounded by his Irish side of the family. Ward and his father lived a simple life growing up on a farm, with a cold water pump, cows and a few hundred chickens. The family sold eggs, potatoes and other farm-fresh products to the community.

“We lived a very spartan lifestyle,” Ward said. “It was a very plain, basic lifestyle. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

His upbringing also led to his interest in and future dedication to the Meals on Wheels program—he was inspired by his own grandmother’s generosity.

“My grandma would not say no to anyone,” said Ward. “She would try to help out anyone she could.”

As the executive director for Meals on Wheels, Ward is responsible for ordering meals weekly to be delivered Monday through Friday to Robbinsville residents that are homebound and in need of assistance. The private, non-profit organization has a presence just about anywhere in the United States. Meals on Wheels started in 1995, and the organization will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.

If homebound, an individual may not be capable of preparing or getting meals independently. It can take a considerable amount of effort and energy to move from one place to the other. Ward said many Meals on Wheels clients are widows or widowers.

“Then they’re the primary person in that household,” he said. “Now, they’re not able to even go to the food store.”

Thanks to the 25 drivers who deliver meals, as well as Robbinsville Senior Center staff members who prepare and personalize each meal for every recipient, around 15 to 20 homes are delivered unique and fresh meals on a week-day basis.

Prior to his involvement with Meals on Wheels, Ward graduated from Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), where he majored in science education. Ward went on to work in education for almost 40 years. He started out teaching science and then special education in the East Windsor School District. Ward went on to serve as the assistant principal and principal at Hightstown High School.

After working in education for so long, Ward looked for a way to get involved with his local community.

“I needed something to do to keep me busy after retiring,” said Ward.

That led him to Meals on Wheels, where he started out as a driver. As of last month, Ward has been with Meals on Wheels for 10 years.

“It’s an unbelievable experience,” Ward said. “You’re dealing with people that need meals, and they’re homebound, and we only work with Robbinsville Township.”

In addition to providing homebound members of the community with healthy, diverse meals, drivers can also keep tabs on a person’s well-being.

“Occasionally, we’ll come across someone who’s fallen,” Ward said. “You can look at their speech, and how they’re moving.”

When something like that happens, Ward usually notifies a family member.

As the executive director of Meals on Wheels, Ward is also responsible for being part of the township’s Senior Advisory Committee. At committee meetings, members discuss topics such as the senior center’s annual Sadie Hawkins dance, future open houses and more events to help keep seniors active in the community.

Ward said he has received a lot of volunteer interest from the Robbinsville community for Meals on Wheels of late.

“At this point we have volunteers that we can use, and there is a waiting list of people who would like to drive for meals on wheels, but there’s so many people that want to help,” Ward said. “That’s a good thing.”