By Francine Brevetti, Correspondent
PITTSBURG — “I don’t even want to think about it,” exclaimed LaDonna Cooper with a shiver. She had been asked what her life would be like without the lunchtime meal she receives from Meals on Wheels Senior Outreach Services.
The 62-year-old fragile Cooper has depended for several years on the Meals on Wheels delivery of her midday sustenance. She is not alone in wondering how she would survive without the service.
Meals on Wheels and Senior Outreach Services delivers to 760 seniors in East County. The organization is struggling to serve its current population. The organization could serve many more if more volunteers would step up to make deliveries.
Elaine Clark, CEO of MOWSOS, said that since January the service has had 11 routes that need to be filled with permanent volunteer drivers. “We’ve been making do with temporary volunteers and our staff who fill in.”
Each route serves 15 to 16 people. Based on these numbers, theoretically, 165 more seniors who are in need could be fed daily with additional, committed volunteers.
The service is constantly in need of volunteer drivers since five to eight drop out monthly.
Clark maintains that ignorance is the cause of the inadequate team of volunteers. “People don’t know that there is a huge need,” she explained.
Meanwhile, the population of frail elderly grows. East County’s coverage area includes a dozen cities and hamlets with Pittsburg, Antioch and Bay Point being critical for the elderly.
“East County is the fastest-growing area (in Contra Costa County) for seniors aging in place. We don’t have a strong presence here. We want to plug more into the population,” Clark said. “We can only open a new route if we have volunteer meal delivery people to consistently deliver the meals.”
The Meals on Wheels SOS is asking local employers to allow their employees to volunteer during their lunch hours. Besides the workplaces, it is also hoping that civic groups, churches adopt one to two routes of their own.
Meanwhile, for the needy shut-ins, the drivers offer still another role — that of human contact. Cooper cherishes her friendship with her drivers and says they always ask how she’s doing.
“It’s good to know somebody cares,” she says.
Her Wednesday-through-Thursday driver, retiree Kevin Leal, enjoys his contribution also.
“This service is good for retired people. It adds value to your life. And the people I deliver to take you on so quick; they make you feel part of the family,” he said.
It’s a win-win for everybody, even the animals. Cooper’s Chihuahua mix Emerald anticipates the arrival of the Meals on Wheels drivers.
“She jumps off the bed and goes right to the door when she hears them coming up the stairs,” Cooper said.
When Leal hears Emerald barking and scratching at the screen door, he appreciates this friendly welcome. He spends about an hour day bringing meals to 13 to 14 Meals on Wheels clients.
But one meal a day, however appreciated, is not enough for anyone to thrive. Cooper acknowledges the friends and neighbors who supply her breakfast and evening fare at their own expense and the dog food for Emerald. Occasionally, her drivers will pitch in with an extra snack or treat.
Meals on Wheels and Senior Outreach Services delivers lunches prepared by Meals on Wheels in Contra Costa County, part of the national Meals on Wheels organization.
Two years ago Congress failed to pass a budget, which resulted in cuts in funding across the board, Clark remembers.
“As a result, we began evaluating each client’s needs and stopped taking new clients unless they were considered an exceptional case — absolutely no way of obtaining food. The number of clients dropped by nearly 100,” she said.
Fortunately, that same year funding was restored in response to national outrage, said Clark, who was one of the point people for the advocacy efforts to restore funding.
This calamity “could happen again, however, if Congress decides to play political football with the lives of seniors, she fears.
While Contra Costa County at large receives eight dollars in social services for each senior, the East County receives only $1 per senior, she said, citing a 2016 Federal Reserve study.