Karen Weese

Ed. Notes- For those of you with good memories, Karen Weese is no stranger to these pages. Her stories are always timely and deal with the problems all of us are most interested and familiar with. We welcome her back to our pages. Personally I have a weakness for a good story teller, and Karen weaves an interesting article.


by Karen Weese

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, which means that Ann and Bill Walker are supposed to be climbing into their small grey Ford SUV, motoring off to pick up an insulated bag of hot meals and a wheeled cooler of chilled food, stashing them in the back of their vehicle, and heading out to deliver them to a half-dozen elderly homebound individuals around their community. At each stop, Bill is supposed to be carrying each meal up the front steps, cheerfully petting the recipients’ dogs, and chatting about the weather or their health or their grandkids; Ann, who always drives, is supposed to be marking down each delivery and organizing the food for the next stop.

They’ve been doing this nearly every Monday for the past eight years. But today, the grey SUV is still in the driveway.

Bill Walker is 85 years old, and Ann—who jokes that she’s “much, much younger!”—is 83. In the face of the heightened risk posed by the coronavirus to older individuals, the Walkers, who have devoted years of their lives to serving the homebound, are suddenly, unexpectedly, homebound themselves.

While most people know that Meals on Wheels delivers nourishment to millions of elderly Americans across the country, few realize that an astonishing three-quarters of the volunteers who deliver the meals are over 55 years old themselves. In the time of coronavirus, it’s a double whammy—a one-two punch creating a whole new swath of elderly recipients needing meals delivered to their homes at precisely the same moment that most of the volunteers doing the delivering have to isolate themselves at home, too.

At 10:30 a.m. on this same Monday morning, 21-year-old biology major Nate Byrnes is supposed to be throwing on his backpack and hustling down the steps of the off-campus house he shares with four other guys, heading to the campus of the College of New Jersey to take an exam for his medical Spanish class. He’s supposed to be reminiscing about a recent spring break trip to New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, planning his fraternity’s spring events and fundraisers, and looking forward to volunteering with the local ambulance squad just as soon as he passes his certification test.

But the coronavirus roiled his plans, too—tests postponed, parades and events canceled, campus shuttered for the rest of the semester.

So instead, the junior from Allentown, New Jersey, is loading an insulated bag of hot meals and a wheeled cooler of chilled food into the back of his 16-year-old Volkswagen with the ski rack on top, and driving around town delivering meals.

As a college student, Byrnes is about as far from the high-risk demographic for the coronavirus as you can get and still be old enough to volunteer. He’s home from college, he’s got a car and a driver’s license, he’s got a sudden abundance of free time … and he really, really wants to help.

Watching the coronavirus explode across his state, “I was trying to figure out something, anything, that I could do to help,” he says. As an aspiring doctor and a not-quite-certified emergency medical technician, he found it supremely frustrating to sit at home in his parents’ house in Allentown, thinking about all the ways he could be helping if only he were further along in his medical education, or if only he had taken his EMT test a little bit sooner. “All of the ambulance squads are totally overwhelmed; ERs are totally overwhelmed. I just wanted to be out there doing that, doing anything to help,” he says.

And, although he recognizes that this is a minor matter in relative terms, it was hard, too, to be whisked unexpectedly from the bustle of college life to the stillness of his parents’ quiet farm—a busy, ambitious, outgoing student abruptly pressed into a state of forced inaction.

When his mom showed him a plea for help from the local Meals on Wheels on Facebook, he couldn’t call fast enough. “When this opportunity came up, I was so excited—I called them immediately,” he says. He attended an orientation the following day; he was out delivering meals two days later. He’s delivered meals almost every weekday since.

“I feel like it’s a really good way to be able to do something to help, especially when it seems like right now there aren’t that many ways we can help,” he says.

Delivering meals is nothing less than “keeping seniors alive,” says Sasa Olessi Montano, CEO of Meals on Wheels of Mercer County, New Jersey, which serves 300 mostly elderly, homebound individuals across the county; Meals on Wheels of America serves 2.4 million seniors nationwide. While delivering daily, hot, nutritious meals to people who can’t leave their homes has always been a lifesaving mission—keeping seniors nourished and healthy at home, and out of nursing homes—these days it feels more vital than ever. As older volunteers step back from the task of delivering just as the numbers of new seniors needing meals skyrockets, “we’re so grateful to have students jumping in,” she says.

In the last month, a full third of Mercer County’s 180 delivery volunteers have stepped back from the role, and thus far, 45 new volunteers have taken their place, including nearly 20 college students. In the meantime, the rate of new elderly residents requesting meal delivery per month has tripled.

For 86-year-old Kathleen Trainor of Ewing Township, New Jersey, the delivered meals “are a lifesaver,” she says. Trainor lives alone and requires a wheelchair to get around; since she can no longer cook, the meals are her primary source of nutrition. Every day, a volunteer knocks on her door to deliver a hot tray (usually meat or fish and two vegetables), and a bag of chilled items, including a salad, piece of fresh fruit, dinner roll, and drink.

Trainor says she appreciates the human interaction—the volunteers are “just so pleasant,” she says, and they often stop to chat or pet her feisty little dog, Duchess—but financially, it’s invaluable, too. While a small number of recipients above a certain income level make a voluntary donation toward the cost of their meals, Trainor, like the majority of Meals on Wheels recipients, receives the meals free of charge. The program is funded through a combination of private donations and federal grants, and is open to any homebound individual.

In just the few weeks since the Walkers stopped delivering and Byrnes began, the actual process of delivering meals has changed significantly. Although meals are still delivered daily, there’s no more chatting at the door with the elderly recipients; the meal is left in a bag on the door handle, and the volunteer steps back six feet to wait until the recipient comes to retrieve it. Delivery volunteers use hand sanitizer constantly, and often wear gloves or masks.

Back at the Walkers’ house, Bill has been filling the time working on a genealogy project, and Ann has been doing more reading. There’s a jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, and they both go for a walk every afternoon.

But the Walkers are itching to get their Mondays back to the way they used to be, motoring around town delivering meals with a side of friendly conversation.
"We had to stop for now, but we’ll be back,” says Bill. “We’re just taking a sabbatical.”

Karen Weese is a freelance writer whose work has been published in the Washington Post, Slate, and other publications.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Washington Post.


College student Nate Byrnes, 21, making deliveries for Meals on Wheels


Ann Walker, 83, and her husband Bill, 85, recently had to halt their efforts delivering for Meals on Wheels because of their heightened coronavirus risk.

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