Every year, Meals on Wheels of Mercer County partners with The Church of St. Ann in Lawrence and the Trenton Kiwanis Club to provide Thanksgiving day meals to seniors who are spending the holiday alone. That was true even in this year of Covid-19, although the coronavirus forced the organizations—and their volunteers—to adapt to the constraints of the pandemic.

In ordinary times, volunteers from St. Ann’s and the Kiwanis gather at the church to make the food before it is delivered by Meals on Wheels to those in need. This year, Leonardo’s, the Lawrence restaurant, agreed to prepare the meals in their kitchen to limit volunteers’ exposure to the virus.

More than a third of Meals on Wheels of Mercer County’s 325 clients opted into this year’s Thanksgiving Day program. MOW volunteers picked up fully prepared meals on Thanksgiving morning and delivered them to 120 clients throughout the area.

While Meals on Wheels volunteers won’t be going out on Christmas day to deliver meals, they will be providing the nonprofit organization’s homebound senior clients with traditional Christmas meals earlier in the week that they will be able to heat and eat on the holiday. This month they will also be distributing “Blizzard Bags” to their clients—care packages full of nonperishable items intended to help the clients get through any winter emergencies that might arise.

Meals on Wheels continues to fulfill its mission of providing nutritious meals and easing social isolation for homebound individuals despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. Many volunteers who had regular delivery routes were themselves seniors, and Sasa Olessi Montaño, MOWMC’s chief executive officer, says that many have reluctantly stepped away out of concern for their own health.

She estimates that she has lost 65 to 70 percent of her regular delivery team. “If somebody came and offered me either a million dollar check or a million volunteers, I would take the volunteers, because the volunteers are like money for us,” she says.

Montaño and her staff have been able to keep meal deliveries going out the standard five days a week — even if it means handling some routes themselves — but she says the Meals on Wheels mission encompasses more than just food. For some clients, the daily visit from their deliverers is the only human contact they will have all week.

“The pandemic is upending all our lives—it’s making all of us homebound,” Montaño says. “But for the people we’re serving, being homebound is nothing different than what they are used to. Our model is to have regular deliverers with permanent routes, so they can develop relationships with the people they serve, week after week. That’s where the magic happens.”

The sight of a familiar face can be really important in terms of helping clients feel safe. “They look forward to seeing the volunteers, they’re so grateful when they come. That three minutes of checking in, of conversation, can make all the difference.

Adding to the challenge is that many Meals on Wheels clients have seen their already fragile social networks diminished further. “Maybe a neighbor or a friend or even family members that were helping, they’re now staying away to stay safe,” Montaño says. “That consistency of seeing the same people—even at a safe distance—has become even more important now.”

So while Meals on Wheels of Mercer County is always looking for new volunteers, the need is greater now than ever. Training is provided to all new volunteers. If you are interested in volunteering, contact the volunteer coordinator at (609) 695-3483, or email questions to info@mealsonwheelsmercer.org. Meals on Wheels of Mercer County can be found on the web at mealsonwheelsmercer.org.