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Helping The Homebound
Kosher Meals on Wheels volunteers are as thankful as those who receive.
For 38 years, volunteers with the kosher Meals on Wheels program have packed and delivered two meals each weekday to homebound seniors and those with disabilities unable to cook for themselves.
The volunteers, many in their 80s, are so committed to doing this mitzvah each week that nothing stops them — not even blizzards and driveways buried under snow.
“What keeps me going are my volunteers,” said Janelle Miller, one of the Friday crew’s three volunteer chairs. Miller has been volunteering for 36 years with kosher Meals on Wheels (MOW), a program founded by Esther Rosenblum through the National Council of Jewish Women/Greater Detroit Section.
Like Miller, most volunteers are long-timers with at least 10 years of service; many have double that. Most of the women are NCJW members. The men tend to be drivers and come to the program in retirement.
“After I retired, my kids saw I was bored so they urged me to do some charity work,” said Ed Acker of Huntington Woods, a 15-year volunteer. “It’s good to do. You run into people who are stuck away in apartments and definitely isolated. I’ve developed friendships, and people tell me about others looking for meals.
“Delivering on Fridays, I always ask how they are and then wish them a good Shabbos,” he said.
On a recent Friday, Acker sits with other drivers in the dining room at Prentis Apartments on the Jewish Community Campus in Oak Park. They are waiting for other volunteers to finish packing the hot Shabbat meal of roasted chicken, matzah ball soup, kugel, vegetables, challah and more. Friday is the only day hot meals are delivered; other days the meals are prepared ahead, refrigerated and packed on the day they are needed.
Acker is in no hurry. He’s kibitzing with Sam and Florence Havis of Southfield, Art Sweet of Farmington Hills and Marcia Lewis of West Bloomfield. They’ve had a bit of cake and coffee; now they are catching up with each other since last Friday.
“We are like a big family,” Sam said. “We get to know each other very well.”
What they have in common is a sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing they are helping those who cannot help themselves, with knowing they are providing nutritious kosher meals to those who need them, and with offering a friendly face to check in on someone who likely is very isolated.
“I started as a driver and often I was the only person they would see during the day,” Miller said. “This program helps people stay in their homes and feel viable. It helps the elderly manage life without feeling displaced.”
Moving Those Meals
Starting around 7 a.m., volunteers arrive to set up organized groups of large paper bags on the dining tables. Each bag has a last name and route number written on the outside. The cold lunches are deposited first in the bags: slices of bread, cheese, containers of juice or milk, some sort of salad and fresh fruit. Shmoozing accompanies the work and, during lapses in activity, volunteers sit for a while. Thirty packers are needed each week.
But when the hot food is ready in the kitchen, volunteers jump into action. An assembly line forms as the traditional hot Shabbat meal is portioned out into plastic containers with divided sections. The kitchen smells like Shabbat. The volunteers work efficiently, with each dinner container heat-sealed in plastic and a sticker bearing a participant’s name and request is affixed carefully by Sam Havis.
“I put my blessing on each one,” he said with a smile.
Jeff Rosenberg supervises the kosher meals as a cook and moshgiach for the local Council of Orthodox Rabbis. He has worked with Meals on Wheels for 20 years, and banters easily with the volunteers. Dave Dry, executive chef for Morrison Senior Dining, which handles the kosher meals at Prentis, has worked with MOW for 13 years. The pair say it’s rewarding to provide the good, hearty meals.
The sealed Shabbat dinners, along with containers of hot soup, are placed on trays and taken to be packed in the bags. Once they are secure, everyone helps transfer the bags to cars so the drivers can begin deliveries. A dozen drivers are needed each weekday to cover 12 routes.
The volunteer packers chat a while longer, then leave the three Friday chairs to talk with Richard Emmer, Meals on Wheels coordinator and the only paid staffer of the program.
Chair Joanne Aronovitz of Huntington Woods has volunteered with MOW for 16 years. For her, it’s always been a family venture, either volunteering with her husband’s aunt, her mother, father, father-in-law, even her husband’s grandfather.
Amy Ergas, the third chair, started volunteering 12 years ago after learning about the program at a mitzvah fair she attended with her daughter. She delivered meals for many years, then was “promoted to management.”
Ergas and her family lived in Holland for a year while her husband was on sabbatical. She was sure to fit MOW into her schedule again when she returned.
“Out of so many activities, the one thing I missed doing while I was away was this,” she said. “I get a nice feeling from it. On Shabbat, I feel I did at least one good thing this week.”
At The Doorstep
Drivers tend to establish routines and relationships with participants on their routes. Some want their meals placed in coolers outside their doors; others prefer help transporting the food to the kitchen.
Occasionally a driver will be asked to change a light bulb or take out the trash. Some participants welcome conversation or a little hug; others say a simple thank you and close the door.
Regardless, a driver is a first-line of contact for participants, all of whom are evaluated by a social worker from Jewish Family Service to determine if they qualify, how much they can pay for meals and if they need other services. Five days of delivered lunches and dinners costs $58, but the cost adjusts on a sliding scale.
Sylvia and Wally Kinzer of West Bloomfield have used the service since she got out of rehab after a fall caused a fracture in her spine more than a year ago.
“I tried to cook, but I couldn’t stand that long,” she said. “You don’t know how much I appreciate this service. It’s fabulous. It saved my life.”
She and her husband grew up in kosher homes, and their home has always been kosher. “It is very important to me to get kosher meals,” she said.
The couple each had been getting meals until they discovered their refrigerator and freezer were jammed with food. Now they share the generous MOW portions and supplement a little from their own food. She marks each container with a date and stores the food away for later.
“We just don’t eat as much as we formerly did,” Sylvia said.
She is genuinely happy when volunteer Sarah Waldshan of West Bloomfield arrives. Waldshan switched routes and has been delivering to the Kinzers for about six months.
“Volunteers always come with a marvelous smile,” Kinzer said. “It’s such a welcoming event. It makes you get up and get fully dressed; I look forward to them coming. One of them always comes in; I think it’s their way of checking on me.”
As a volunteer, Waldshan gets a similar feeling.
“I just feel such a high,” she said. “When I finish passing out meals, I feel like my kids are fed. I get home, and know I did something. I comforted someone who is not feeling well. I can share with someone who is isolated. I’m doing a mitzvah, and the people are so sweet and appreciative.”
Sylvia adds the icing to that statement.
“People who deliver are special people,” she said. “They let you get strong and be as independent as possible.”
Desire To Help More
NCJW’s Meals on Wheels program’s $210,000 annual budget is funded through proceeds from its resale shops, participant fees, the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, Title III, the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation, the DeRoy Testamentary Foundation, donations and more.
The program is open to homebound adults older than 60 regardless of religion and to persons with disabilities who qualify. Meals for diabetics also are available.
At holidays, participants get small jars of honey, little bottles of sparkling juice, challah covers made by children. On birthdays, each gets a little greeting with their meals. And rest assured, Thanksgiving dinner with be turkey with all the trimmings.
Not so long ago, MOW served 250 people. Now, with more seniors in assisted living facilities, the program delivers to about 60-80, depending on the day. Also, some people get meals temporarily after a hospital stay.
Program Coordinator Richard Emmer, a short-timer at 1½ years in the job compared to most of the 100 volunteers, believes more people could be helped by Meals on Wheels if they were aware of the program.
“I am doing outreach,” he said. “I’m sending information to hospitals and rehab facilities and to rabbis and executive directors of synagogues. I would love to add new people.”
Kosher Meals on Wheels also is looking for more volunteers, including teens doing b’nai mitzvah projects.
“It’s a very good community program,” Emmer said. “It’s a win for all generations.”
For more information, contact Richard Emmer at (248) 967-0967.
Written by: Keri Guten Cohen | Story Development Editor