When the COVID-19 crisis became a local – and international – emergency in early March, White Rock-South Surrey Meals On Wheels’ Pat Patton feared the worst for the program.
“We lost 90 per cent of our volunteers in one fell swoop,” she said, adding that many of them had age-related concerns, or needed to put family priorities first.
“Usually we have about 25 people driving,” the program’s affable, long-serving local co-ordinator said.
“When COVID hit we were down to about five.”
Patton said she worried that it would be impossible to continue the service, which delivers low-cost, dietician-supervised meals three times a week to an average of 60 shut-ins, seniors and limited-mobility clients in a territory ranging from Crescent Beach eastward to 184 Street, and from Zero Avenue north to 40 Avenue.
She pointed out the service – which started in White Rock in 1972, second in the Lower Mainland after New Westminster – has always been about more than meals.
For many clients, who can range in age from their teens to the early 100s, it may be the only human contact they have during the day.
“Most of our clients are isolated – they’ve been isolated for a long time,” she noted, adding that a mandatory quarantine – even if people were unlikely to venture out – has placed an even further burden on morale and mental health.
As it turns out, she needn’t have worried.
“The community stepped in,” she said.
In fact, almost as soon as word got out that drivers were in short supply, Patton said, she experienced an influx of calls from caring new faces wanting to volunteer, many of them wanting to make a useful contribution to the community while in a forced absence from work.
“One call led to another, and with their wonderful help, Meals On Wheels did not miss even one delivery day,” she said. “It’s amazing how quickly people settled into the new routine.”
In addition to the newcomers, long-time volunteers stepped up their own participation in the Monday-Wednesday-Friday operation, some driving as many as three shifts a week.
And while Patton said she was concerned about another hiccup as quarantined workers began to return to work last month, some of her original volunteers are now returning to drive again.
Another worry was that the program’s meal provider – the Evergreen Campus of Care in White Rock – might be forced to terminate the arrangement due to the pandemic, Patton said.
It’s with gratitude to Evergreen staff that she notes that never happened.
“Safety protocols were swiftly put in place and followed to a ‘T’,” she said. “We have no contact with the residents and work from a semi-isolated corridor with the few staff we see, fully protected with gowns, masks and gloves, and an endless supply of hand-sanitizer.”
There’s something about the connection forged with clients on the carefully-worked-out routes that gets under the skin, volunteers agreed recently, as they turned up shortly before 11 a.m. to pick up meals at Evergreen for a Wednesday shift.
Under pandemic restrictions, meals are left for clients in carrier-bagged insulated containers on doorsteps, or, in case of the severely mobility-challenged, entrance to units is done as smoothly and swiftly as possible, with proper social distancing to protect both clients and volunteers.
“But quite often we do spend two or three minutes with them,” Wednesday captain Ray Mallory – a five-year volunteer – said, adding that it also serves as a safety check on clients.
“The visit is quite as important as the meal. People look forward to you showing up, and drivers get to know the routes and the regulars. If somebody isn’t on the list for a meal that day, you say ‘how come?’
“You do develop friendships – you get close to people,” Patton commented.
Jane Finley, one of the newer volunteers, said she marvels at the variety of clients one meets – and how fond one becomes of them.
“It’s a pretty cool thing to do – and we get as much out of it as we put in,” she said.
Patton, who started as a volunteer in 1983 and became co-ordinator 20 years ago, said she feels as though working for the program is virtually in her blood.
“I didn’t have a choice – it’s almost a family business,” she laughed. “My aunt started doing it in London after the Second World War, and my mother did it in Melbourne, Australia.
“And when I arrived in White Rock in the early ’80s, there it was – in an ad in Peace Arch News.”
And even though numbers are fairly stable at present, there will always be a need for new volunteers as circumstances change, she added.
For more information on Meals On Wheels, or becoming a volunteer, call 604-541-6325 or visit the website at whiterockmealsonwheels.com
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