HELENA — Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Helena resident Pauline Hooper was a regular at the Rocky Mountain Development Council’s Senior Center Dinner Club. Now, the virus has forced Hooper to stay home, and she relies on Meals on Wheels to keep her fed -- and healthy -- during the pandemic.
“It was scary to think there was a bug going around that, if you got it, could kill you in no time,” Hooper said. “Nobody would be able to come visit you in the hospital, you’d be there by yourself.”
There are many other people just like Hooper who have turned to Meals on Wheels during the pandemic. The Rocky Mountain Development Council has seen an almost 30% increase in clients since the beginning of the pandemic, and in the Helena area alone, they serve about 200 clients per day.
Meals on Wheels traditionally serves the home-bound elderly, but during the pandemic, RMDC senior nutrition program manager Shawna Donaldson said they’re seeing a broader range of clientele.
“We have seen some new clientele coming,” Donaldson said. “Some that are younger, immunocompromised that do need those meals brought to their doors.”
A dedicated group of employees and volunteers help the Meals on Wheels program keep up with increased demand.
“My wife and I do it together, and the grandkids are now involved,” volunteer Ray Rutherford said. “It’s a family affair at this point.”
Rutherford began volunteering before the pandemic and has seen how COVID-19 changed Meals on Wheels. Volunteers and staff wear masks, use hand sanitizer between each delivery, and clean high-touch areas of their vehicles, among other changes in protocols.
“We used to be able to go into their house. Now, we just hang (the meal) on the door, and knock on the door,” Rutherford said. “All of those things have changed because of COVID.”
But, COVID-19 protocols have not diminished the important role Meals on Wheels volunteers and employees play in the clients’ lives.
“She comes and she usually visits with me for a minute, makes sure you’re okay,” Hooper said.
For some Meals on Wheels clients homebound by the pandemic, that small interaction is their only contact with the world beyond their door. Volunteers like Rutherford know that little bit makes a difference.
“For people that love people, it’s a way to touch another life in a way that you can’t normally touch another life,” Rutherford said. “Some of these older folks that we’re delivering to need a friend, need a relationship, and sometimes, we’re on e of those.”
Donaldson said Meals on Wheels received COVID-19 stimulus funding, but they did not get any more in the most recent COVID-19 stimulus package. She said volunteers and donations are critical right now.
“It enables us to keep serving people, not to have to put a cap on how many people we serve,” Donaldson said. “It also keeps us running.”