More than just a meal

More than just a meal

Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island’s director of development Karen Weavill, left, of Lincoln, and executive director Heather Amaral stand outside of the organization’s Bath Street office in Providence. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)
Lincoln woman helps lead mission to deliver food and human connections across Rhode Island

Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island has been delivering healthy meals and warm smiles to senior citizens in-need for 49 years, establishing human connections with thousands of homebound individuals across the state every day.

The organization’s mantra is “More than just a meal,” and director of development Karen L. Weavill agrees that it “truly, truly is.”

“So much of what we do is about overall quality of life for the folks that we serve, not just eating a healthy lunch,” she told The Breeze. “It’s knowing someone cares whether you open the door.”

Weavill, who lives in Lincoln, joined the Meals on Wheels team in February, bringing 25 years of professional fundraising experience to the position.

Through Meals on Wheels, a network of mostly volunteer delivery drivers serves healthy food to roughly 1,200 Rhode Islanders every day. Most of the Meals on Wheels clients are on the service long-term, but others join the program temporarily as they undergo medical treatment such as chemotherapy or surgery recovery.

Delivery drivers are trained in various physical and behavioral warning signs and equipped with protocols to follow in case of an emergency. A few weeks ago, when a client did not answer the door for her delivery, a dispatcher at Meals on Wheels connected with the client’s emergency contact, who did a home check and learned she had fallen down her basement stairs and couldn’t get up or reach a phone to call for help.

“Believe it or not, that sort of thing occurs on a fairly regular basis,” said Weavill, who shared a number of examples of volunteers who go above and beyond simply dropping off a meal, including shoveling clients’ driveways during snow.

“Drivers get to know their folks, their routines, what their house is like, they know their pets’ names … in many cases once they’ve built trust to the point where they’re able to literally walk into a client’s home and place the meal in the refrigerator for them. It’s as much a social and safety check as it is meal delivery,” said Weavill.

Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island dates back to Feb. 6, 1969, when a small group of volunteers began serving meals to 17 seniors out of a space donated by Grace Church in Providence. In 2017, more than 700 volunteers delivered a total of 340,071 meals to 2,535 seniors and other homebound Rhode Islanders.

Of the 1,200 meals delivered each day, about half are dispatched out of the Meals on Wheels headquarters at 70 Bath St. in Providence, with roughly 20 satellite distribution sites around the state. Woonsocket Senior Services handles most of Northern Rhode Island’s dispatch, with routes covering Chepachet, Harmony, Harrisville, Lincoln, Mapleville, Smithfield, Pascoag and Slatersville.

One of 23 paid employees working out of Providence is volunteer coordinator Osvalda “Ozzie” Silva, who orchestrates the efforts of the organization’s 700 volunteer drivers.

Volunteer delivery driver Margaret Perry said, “Ozzie works tirelessly each day at the office on Bath Street, and she has a job I would never want to do … making sure the count is correct, dividing up the meals to be given to residents, handling all kinds of calls from us volunteers when we get no answer or have to cover our route … she is indeed an angel,” said Perry. “I cannot believe the stress she goes through every day, yet she does it with a smile.”

The effort of employees like Silva and hundreds of volunteers like Perry means Meals on Wheels does not have to cap off the number of people served due to lack of help – only lack of funding.

“At any given time, we have a few hundred people on a waiting list for our services. It’s not because we don’t have the bandwidth to serve them, it’s because we literally can’t afford to buy the meals and dispatch them out,” Weavill said, adding that her department has been expanded partly to explore new ways to strengthen funding.

Despite the threats of cuts that occur every budget cycle, Weavill said government funding for the program has remained the same for nearly a decade, while the cost of groceries and the number of people in-need has risen. A significant portion of the funding is protected under the Older Americans Act of 1972, though Rhode Island receives the base level of federal funding based on population size. State and federal funding make up 60 percent of the budget.

There is no financial eligibility requirement or cost for seniors to participate in Meals on Wheels programming. Though a $3 donation per meal is suggested, 88 percent of clients are unable to make the donation. Meals cost the organization a little over $7 each.

Perry said for some of her clients, she may be delivering their only meal that day, or the only meal that provides balanced nutrition.

“But more than that, I may be the only person they see that day … the only person checking up to make sure they are okay,” said Perry, who delivers meals in North Providence. “The joy and smiles I receive from the ‘regulars’ I deliver to each week is priceless.”

Perry sometimes brings her eight-pound “snorkie” named Scooter, who jumps into the waiting laps of her clients.

“I love how happy it makes them, even for just a few such moments,” she said. “Seeing the smiles on their faces is just wonderful.”

“I so believe in this program. It turned out to be a blessing for me too. I was very close to my late father and feel when I’m doing this I’m giving back and honoring my father at the same time.”