Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Delivering more than a meal

Meals on Wheels volunteer Caroline Landgreeb walks up a wheelchair ramp to a meal recipients home on her route, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015.

It is chocolate cake day, and I know I’m pretty excited. I don’t think I’m alone.

Volunteer opportunities

People interested in becoming volunteer drivers for the Meals on Wheels program can call 830-8844. The program uses about 20 drivers a day, five days per week.

Meals on Wheels volunteer Carolyn Landgrebe leans in to visit with Lawrence resident Jane Gates after dropping off a lunch for Gates and her husband, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. Landgrebe has been volunteering with the food delivery service since its inception in 1970. Director Kim Culliss says that in addition to the nutritional value that the meals provide, a big part of the service is the human interaction between the volunteers and the meal recipients, many of whom do not often have visitors.

How can I be? A piece of chocolate cake shows up at your doorstep, and suddenly the sun shines a little brighter. On this day, about 130 people across Lawrence got their cake, and were able to eat it too.

Knock, knock, knock. “Meals on Wheels,” Carolyn Landgrebe says, just like she has since she began volunteering for the organization during its first year of Lawrence operations in 1970.

“It is such a delight every noon,” she says.

Clients of the program seem to agree. Some are waiting on the front porch for us. All seem happy to see us. Several seem particularly pleased when I dutifully alert them of the presence of chocolate cake in today’s meal.

“You can’t go wrong with chocolate cake,” says Pearl Schneider, 93. I offer to bring her the cake, which is sitting on the kitchen counter. She says she’ll get there with her walker, thank you. She’s evidently heard about me and chocolate cake.

Schneider is an example of a senior citizen client of the program. Douglas County Senior Services offers a meal program that serves people 60 years and older. Clients of Meals on Wheels, which is separate from Senior Services, don’t have to be 60 years old. They just have to be declared homebound and in need of a special diet according to their physician.

But more and more Meals on Wheels clients are older these days. Landgrebe remembers in the beginning — back when church groups cooked the meals in tin pie plates and drivers carried a hot stone with them to keep the meals warm — that many of the clients were people who were recovering from a hospital stay and temporarily were unable to fix their meals.

“Now, it has shifted to a lot of retired people who couldn’t stay in their homes otherwise,” says Landgrebe, 77.

Numbers are growing overall in the program. In 1970, Landgrebe remembers there were about a dozen people on that first route. In 2001, there were 60. Today, most days average 125 to 130 people who are receiving meals, which are now prepared at Lawrence Memorial Hospital to certain dietary standards. (This day the menu also included a BBQ pork sandwich, tater tots, coleslaw and a banana.)

Something else has changed in that time period. In 2001, 50 percent of the clients paid the full price of a meal, says Kim Culliss, the part-time executive director and just one of three employees of the organization. Today, only two people pay the entire $4.50 full price. Everybody else just pays what they can. Grants and fundraising make up the bulk of the nonprofit’s roughly $225,000 budget.

“People just don’t have enough money,” Landgrebe says of the plight of many clients.

But that’s not all that is in short supply these days. A friendly face to chat with can be difficult to find as well. As children grow up and take jobs all over the country, more and more parents are left with fewer and fewer family members around them.

“People are waiting for us, and it is not just for the food,” says Bill Crowe, who has volunteered as a driver since retiring from KU four years ago.

A BBQ sandwich is good, but so too are the bite-sized pieces of conversation clients have with their delivery drivers. Some bites are bigger than others, by the way.

“Most of the time a route will take less than an hour for a volunteer,” says Mary Bakken. “But it depends on how much your people like to chat. There are some who really like to chat.”

Bakken says some drivers make it a point to go to some houses last, so that they have plenty of time to converse. Landgrebe says her relationships with clients are always professional, but that doesn’t stop her from getting to know them. She tells about one client who recently lost her husband.

“She gets an extra hug from me,” Landgrebe says.

Other times, the conversations are a bit more like the meat underneath the gravy on the buffet: You never quite know what to expect. On this day, Landgrebe found herself serving as explainer-in-chief about the city’s new curbside recycling program on one stop. The client opened up her dishwasher and showed Landgrebe that she had been using the appliance to store all the little plastic, disposable trays from her Meals on Wheels deliveries. Dozens and dozens of them. Landgrebe explained about the big, new, blue recycling cart sitting outside her door.

Other times, the conversations are less about the here and now. Here we are at Doris Stubeck’s house. We have almost completed our delivery before she really starts to converse. We’re on the front stoop, and she points to a beautiful wrought iron S that is attached to the stonework of the home. It is a piece that you can tell took some time and skill to create. Stubeck tells me she made it. It was a class she took at KU long ago.

She follows me all the way to the car, talking about a different time when the S greeted more people than it does today.

“I like the conversation,” Stubeck finally says. “It makes me feel important.”

It makes me feel like I have found something even sweeter than chocolate cake.