April 15, I went with Mike Harber and Linda King on their route around the Thayer area.
Instead of doing my reporting duty of just acting as an observer, Mike and Linda volunteered me to work alongside them as we hauled coolers full of frozen meals, as well as some hot meals, into the van.
Once everything was loaded, we were on our way from the Fun and Friends Senior Center to hand out meals on one of the six routes ran out of the center five days a week.
Linda said there are about three people per route: A driver, a packer and a deliverer. I was the deliverer for the day so I could visit with some of the people on the route.
There are about 20 to 25 volunteers who work with Meals on Wheels, and Linda said they are in need of anyone and everyone who can volunteer.
According to Mike, who is also one of Thayer's aldermen, the Meals on Wheels program hands out about 8,000 meals to those 60 or over (if they're not physically handicapped) in the area every month.
Linda said most of the meals are prepared to suit both those who have diabetes and those who don't.
Though some seniors who receive the meals live fairly well and receive a pension from their retirement, others live very meagerly and live off very little. Sometimes, Meals on Wheels is the only source they have for both food and company.
"One of the most important things about this route or any route is you actually get to see the person because some of these people are in such bad condition they may not even be alive the next day," Mike said. "Matter of fact, that's happened twice on my route. If I hadn't been there, they wouldn't have made it through the day."
Mike said one man he delivers to, who shall remain anonymous, lives in a place where all the water pipes are broken and there is no electricity. Mike said the man hasn't taken a shower or bathed in about 30 years and lives in filth. It's hard to imagine any person living in such circumstances, especially a senior, but as we pulled up to the curb of the driveway of the man's house, I began to see what Mike was talking about.
Trash was piled up in the front yard and a multitude of cigarette butts were laying on the ground. I knocked on the door to the small house while holding the man's meals. The man was asleep, so I sat his meals down on a chair close to his bed. The inside of the man's house was dark and smelled of mold and mildew.
Mike said the man was too stubborn to go to a nursing home and wouldn't accept help from anyone who offered to clean up his place or fix the broken pipes.
The man's house used to be much worse than what it is now. Mike said the man did some clean up. However, the first time he went into the man's house, Mike said, he threw up because of the smell and the rotting chicken bones laying on the floor. "He just throws his food in the floor," Mike said. "Then, there's trash angled up to the ceiling. Not useable items, just trash."
"His arms and legs are black and his fingers are yellow from cigarettes," Mike said. He said the blackness on the man's arms could either be from lack of circulation or dirt.
"When you haven't taken a bath or shower in 30 years, you're bound to get a little dirty," Mike said.
Though there might be a handful of seniors who live in similar circumstances, there are others who manage to make ends meet and are more than grateful to receive the meals.
One senior said she appreciates what Meals on Wheels does because she suffers from osteoporosis and can no longer do her own cooking. Other seniors are able to greet volunteers at the door, flash a smile and say thank you and ask how their day is going.
As a Meals on Wheels volunteer for just one day and on one route, I was able to see first hand the good work the program does for the seniors in the area through every smile, hello and thank you.
Mike said those who might be interested in volunteering with Meals on Wheels really need to try a route. "It's one area where you can see government dollars at work. You can actually see it handed to somebody," Mike said.
He said the Meals on Wheels project is funded through the Older Americans Act and managed by the Southwest Missouri Area Agency on Aging.
"It's very rewarding. It makes you feel good," Linda said.
"This is good," Mike said. "You get to see something actually working, and you get to check on the older people every day and make sure they're OK."