By Jack Nissen
Clinton County Chatter
Fred Smitz, a resident of Clinton County, is bed-ridden. With the inability to move or speak, he relies on those around him to attend to even his most basic needs.
While family bears the brunt of most of the responsibility, Meals on Wheels, one of the Tri-County Office of Aging’s programs, assists in the food packaging and delivery of meals to Smitz.
“Fred has been a recipient of Meals on Wheels for about a year,” said Gale Smitz, Fred Smitz’s wife. “Being on low income, the program has helped us out a lot.”
Many adults over the age of 60 share Gale Smitz’s husband’s dependency. And the number of clients grows every year.
“In 2013, we served 459,000 meals,” said Carl Buonodono, the nutrition director for the Tri-County Office of Aging. “For 2014, we hit 514,000 meals and we are predicting that we’ll be servicing more than 550,000 meals in 2015.”
The growth of clients has increased the demand for volunteers.
“On average, our drivers see 14 clients per route,” said Buonodono. “I’d like to see that number drop down to ten.”
Carrie Hartenburg, the Clinton County Meals on Wheels Supervisor, oversees 310 volunteers for the county.
“We’ve been looking for about 30 more volunteers to help with delivery,” said Hartenburg. “Currently I have 20 different drivers a day making runs.”
Hartenburg attributes the lack of volunteers to more than just seasonal distractions and timing issues.
“A lot of my volunteers are older,” said Hartenburg. “They’re frail and can get sick. Finding time during the day is also difficult with many of the volunteers having work around the time we need them to deliver.”
While the staff will always pick up routes if they need too, this is a last resort that hasn’t been necessary yet. Several businesses and community groups sponsor routes that volunteers couldn’t meet.
“The need is growing, so we’ll need to start asking more businesses for help,” said Hartenburg. “Currently groups like the Saint Johns Rotary Club, Lions and Lioness Clubs, the DeWitt Breakfast Club and First Merit Bank run some routes for us.”
While Fred Smitz has been receiving meals for more than 12 months, many of his potential delivers have been driving routes for decades.
“Many of our volunteers are community members whom are friends with the clients they deliver,” said Hartenburg. “I’ve got one driver who’s been with us since 1976.”
Reimbursement for gasoline used in transit is offered to many of the volunteers, however many don’t accept the 32 cents a mile available.
Carol Dudley, a three-year deliverer for Meals on Wheels, understands the importance of her job. For her, it goes past just providing ready to eat meals.
“A driver is helping someone by supporting them to stay in their house,” said Dudley over the phone. “I deliver three times a month to ten different locations, so it isn’t a huge stressor on me. It’s rewarding and means a lot to the person we’re visiting.”
“It’s beyond just a meal, it’s a friendly face everyday,” said Hartenburg. “My drivers understand that can be just as valuable to any client who may not have a lot of personal contact with other people.”
A notice has been on the Clinton County website advertising a request for more volunteers not just in the Tri-County area, but the Greater Lansing Area as well. This has been up since 2013.
“We’re pushing for between 200-400 more volunteers this year,” said Buonodono. “The agency is close to 1400 strong but with demand increasing, it’s becoming harder to accommodate so many clients.”
“We’re lucky we’ve only had to adjust driving schedules,” said Hartenburg. “Areas in Detroit have resorted to waiting lists for clients looking to join the program.”