With three-quarters of regular Meals on Wheels volunteers over 55 years old and therefore in the at risk bracket themselves, college students and other younger drivers answered the call on social media to deliver meals to the elderly.
College students replace vulnerable Meals on Wheels delivery drivers in New Jersey
A group of New Jersey college students have stepped up to fill the gaps left by Meals on Wheels volunteers who have remained at home due being at particular risk from coronavirus. Around 60 of 180 regular delivery volunteers in Mercer County have stepped back, with 45 locals, including 20 college students, stepping in to perform deliveries for the program. Three quarters of the program’s regular volunteer delivery drivers are older than 55, making them particularly vulnerable to the virus themselves, reported The Washington Post.
The rate of new elderly residents requesting meal delivery has tripled in the past month
Millions of elderly Americans depend on Meals on Wheels for their nourishment, but three-quarters of the volunteers who deliver the meals are over 55 years old and they’re staying home, so college students are helping to fill the gap.
In the past month alone, some 60 of Mercer County’s 180 delivery volunteers have stepped back, and around 45 volunteers have taken their place, including about 20 college students.
Now on Mondays, Nate Byrnes, 21, a biology major at the College of New Jersey, loads an insulated bag of hot meals and a wheeled cooler of chilled food into the back of his 16-year-old Volkswagen and delivers meals.
“I was trying to figure out something, anything, that I could do to help,” said Byrnes, who grew increasingly concerned as the coronavirus exploded across the state.
As an aspiring doctor and a not-quite-certified emergency medical technician, he was frustrated thinking about all of the ways he could be helping if only he were further along in his medical education, or if only he had taken his EMT test a little sooner.
“All of the ambulance squads are totally overwhelmed,” he told The Washington Post. “ERs are totally overwhelmed.”
The coronavirus upended his plans, too — tests were postponed and parades and events were canceled as campus shuttered for the rest of the semester.
When his mother showed him an appeal for help from the local Meals on Wheels on Facebook, he couldn’t call fast enough. He attended an orientation the following day; he was out delivering meals two days later. He has delivered meals almost every weekday since.
Meals on Wheels welcomed him with open arms, and the rate of new elderly residents requesting meal delivery has tripled in the past month or so.
“I feel like it’s a really good way to be able to do something to help, especially when it seems like right now there aren’t that many ways we can help,” he said.
Sasa Olessi Montaño, chief executive of Meals on Wheels of Mercer County, which serves 300 mostly elderly, homebound people, said delivering meals is “keeping seniors alive.”
Meals on Wheels of America serves 2.4 million seniors nationwide. Although delivering daily, hot, nutritious meals to people who cannot leave their homes has always been a lifesaving mission, keeping seniors nourished and healthy at home — and out of nursing homes — now is more vital than ever.
“We’re so grateful to have students jumping in,” she told The Washington Post.
Students and other younger drivers were recruited through social media
A small number of Meals on Wheels recipients make a voluntary donation toward the cost of their meals, but the majority of Meals on Wheels recipients get them free. The program is funded through a combination of private donations and federal grants, and it is open to anyone homebound.
To recruit college students and other younger drivers, Olessi Montaño put out the call on social media and asked existing volunteers to recruit their children or grandchildren.
“Some students are coming with their parents, or a friend, or a significant other, but we’ve definitely seen an uptick in younger volunteers,” she said.
It’s not the first time the chapter has partnered with colleges or college students. Olessi Montaño has brought in nursing students as “friendly visitors” for seniors — and meal prep for Meals on Wheels is based in the kitchen of nearby Rider University. Still, it’s the first time the chapter has targeted students to fill the crucial “boots-on-the-ground” role of delivery volunteer, she said.
In recent weeks, the protocol for delivering meals has changed. Meals are still delivered daily, but there’s no more chatting at the door with recipients. The meal is left in a bag at the door, and the volunteer steps back six feet to wait until the recipient retrieves it. Delivery volunteers use hand sanitiser often and wear gloves or masks when possible.
Meals are still cooked from scratch, but kitchen staff wear face masks and gloves. Everyone’s temperatures are taken each day, and volunteers wait outside by their cars as the food is brought out.
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