For senior citizens on fixed incomes who are homebound, they are, as one Westchester homeowner described them, “angels sent from heaven.” They are an integral part of their clients’ lives, often taking on the role of confidant.
And they do it all without pay.
They are volunteers with the Culver City Meals on Wheels program, a meal assistance service that delivers nutritious meals to senior citizens and others who are hard-pressed to cook for themselves or live on fixed incomes. While its base of operations is the Grace Lutheran Church in Culver City, Meals on Wheels makes the vast majority of its deliveries to clients in the surrounding Westside cities.
“We’re called Culver City Meals On Wheels because that’s where the program originally started,” said Francine Stronks, the executive director of the program and a Westchester resident who has been with Meals on Wheels for over 30 years. “It began with a small group of people that incorporated in Culver City and Palms, and it was Culver City that they had to see to incorporate at that time.”
The nonprofit organization does not receive any government funding — only donations from the public — and that can be an advantage, said Stronks.
“In a way, that’s nice for us because we aren’t subject to the same rules that government-sponsored programs are and we’re able to provide for people who need the service, even if they’re not the right age, for instance,” she explained. “We’re happy to serve seniors, people with certain disabilities of any kind.”
Stronks noted that there are younger people who have disabilities from injuries or that are genetic who may not qualify from government subsidized meal providers.
“Their physical problems might preclude them from being served by some of the programs that get their funding from the Department of Aging,” she said.
Meals on Wheels serves approximately 100 to 110 meals a day to seniors, the disabled and low-income residents.
For only $6 per day, clients receive two meals daily, one hot and one cold dish. The volunteers deliver the food directly to the client, a caregiver or a designated family member.
The organization makes every attempt to respond to its clients’ requests for specially prepared meals. For example, there are some clients who are on salt-free diets, others who are diabetic and some who are vegetarians, and Stronks and her band of volunteers are more than happy to deliver the meals to them. Each type of meal is in a different color container.
To qualify for Meals on Wheels, applicants must demonstrate that they are homebound or not able to shop at their local supermarket on a frequent basis and cook for themselves.
The program covers a wide and diverse network of Westside neighborhoods, including Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey, Venice, Mar Vista, Del Rey, Playa Vista and Westchester.
Marina del Rey is one of the coverage areas where the organization is in need of volunteers.
“It’s an area where we’re not serving as well as we would like to,” said Stronks. Although both Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey are affluent areas, there are clients there who would like to participate in the food delivery service, says Stronks.
“We have had many calls from parts of Marina del Rey, but so far it has been a challenge because so many of our volunteers are seniors, and the Marina in particular presents a new kind of density that makes it more difficult for a lot of our longtime volunteers.”
Stronks, who is a member of Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s Empowerment Congress, was honored in 2006 by the councilman with a Pioneer Award for her work on senior and youth matters in District 11. Working at Meals on Wheels is an extension of her community service.
“This is one component of the kind of issues that we are working on behalf of seniors and the disabled,” she says.
The Argonaut recently accompanied Meals on Wheels on a “ride-along” through the Westchester-Playa del Rey area to get a first-hand look at the operation. Maryanne Long, who has been a volunteer for three years, enjoys helping to provide senior citizens with nutritious meals.
“I love helping them to have the ability to stay in their own homes, and not having to go into nursing care facilities,” Long said between stops. “Helping them keep their independence to the degree that they can is very, very important.”
The bonds between driver and client can sometimes run deep. Often, the driver is the only person a client might see that day, say Long and Stronks.
Virginia Reinholm, a Westchester resident, appeared to be quite happy to see Long as she arrived at her doorstep, plastic bags in hand. Reinholm, 84, credits the meal delivery service with allowing her to maintain a degree of independence.
“If it wasn’t for my angels,” she said, motioning to Long, “I probably would have been in a nursing home by now.”
Gina Strate is another senior citizen who has come to rely on Stronk’s group of community-minded volunteers.
“The drivers are always nice,” Strate said.
The best part of having her meals delivered? “I don’t have to cook anymore,” she said with a laugh.
New clients are added frequently, so there is always someone new to meet on most of the routes. Long has worked almost all of the service areas and has seen many of the new faces.
“The constant flexibility and change is one of the things that is consistent,” Long said.
Rosendahl also took part in a ride-along with a group of Meals on Wheels volunteers on their daily rounds earlier this summer, where he and members of his staff had an opportunity to interact with constituents that he normally does not encounter due to the fact that many are unable to leave their homes without assistance.
“This is a very special and personal program for me,” said the councilman, whose father, Frank Rosendahl, volunteered at Meals on Wheels for several years. Rosendahl said that his father was involved with the program until his mid-80s.
“He would be so excited after he came home from delivering meals and interacting with people,” Rosendahl recalled. “For so many of our senior citizens who receive these meals, the volunteers are often their lifeline to the community.”
The councilman had an interesting encounter during his ride-along. During a trip through Mar Vista, he met Lloyd Kite, a constituent who has been with Meals on Wheels for six years and lives only a few blocks down the street from Rosendahl.
It was during this interaction that Rosendahl learned that Kite had turned 100 years old in March, and in August the councilman presented the centenarian with a certificate from the Los Angeles City Council.
Kite and members of his family then asked the councilman to join them for a belated birthday celebration at Kite’s home.
Kite’s daughter, Kennalee Matteson, was touched that Rosendahl spent time with her father after delivering his meals, and has kind words for the Meal on Wheels drivers also.
“It was pretty amazing to have [Rosendahl] over for my dad’s party,” Matteson said. “[The Meals on Wheels volunteers are] very nice people and very reliable.”
She says she and her father have been very pleased with the service that Meals on Wheels provides.
Rosendahl said he thoroughly enjoyed his time delivering meals and getting to know many of his constituents.
“There is definitely a wonderful kind of therapy in connecting with other human beings,” he said. “We have a very large senior population in our district, and you can see in their eyes the difference that these wonderful volunteers are making in their clients’ lives.”
“The volunteers are amazing,” Stronks added. “There’s something very special about people who give a part of their time because it does something nice for someone else.”
Long believes that she is making a difference with her brand of community service. Asked what she believes is the most rewarding part of her service, she responded that it is “helping people who need healthy meals to stay alert and have the ability to stay in their own homes.”
Rosendahl also praised Stronks and the delivery drivers.
“They are showing great community spirit and are creating great relationships within the community,” he said. “They are both a gift and a blessing, and I urge everyone who can to volunteer for this wonderful organization.”
Meals on Wheels is always in need of more volunteers, and those who wish more information about the organization may call (310) 559-0666.
There are also Meals on Wheels-West and Meals On Wheels-Santa Monica, based in Santa Monica. Information for both, (310) 394-5133 or www .mealsonwheelswest.org/.