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Earlier this month, Meals on Wheels Inc. of Charleston observed its 50th anniversary of providing mobile and social service and sustenance to Kanawha Valley residents.

“It all started in early 1970 when the possibility of a home-delivered meals program was discussed by the Community Service Committee of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in South Charleston,” Meals on Wheels of Charleston Vice President and Board member Bobbi Holland explained.

An ecumenical Meals on Wheels Steering Committee was formed. Its work led to Meals on Wheels of Charleston’s incorporation as a nonprofit entity to deliver food to elderly, disabled and chronically ill individuals at a minimum fee.

“Through many steps, including evaluations of similar projects, it was determined that obtaining meals through an established food source, a hospital with dietician services, was the best route,” Holland said. “Herbert J. Thomas Memorial Hospital agreed to provide the meals at cost.”

The first meal delivery occurred on Nov. 2, 1970, in South Charleston, serving nine clients on two routes.

A second Meals on Wheels of Charleston unit was established at St. Francis Hospital in May 1971. A third unit with CAMC Memorial Hospital opened in October 1972; it now includes a fourth unit, CAMC Women and Children’s Hospital.

“Our organization is different from other Meals on Wheels programs that I know of,” Meals on Wheels of Charleston President Ken Pike said. “We’re not federally funded. We rely solely on donations. Our criteria is basically we can deliver to anybody who is physically incapacitated and needs a meal. It doesn’t make any difference if they’re 65, 55, or whatever.”

Valued volunteers

Meals on Wheels of Charleston is solely volunteer based, as well.

“We are extremely proud of our volunteers and the ability to keep this great program continuing. We deliver lunches five days a week, 52 weeks a year, including holidays, to approximately 70 clients daily from all four hospitals, utilizing volunteers at each hospital. We have even continued our deliveries throughout the COVID-19 situation, adjusting our usual procedures,” Holland said.

Most Meals on Wheels of Charleston volunteers work one or two hours one day a week, either packing food prepared at a hospital, delivering food or doing both.

Ann Knebel of Charleston drives one of two weekly Meals on Wheels routes on the West Side. She has been a volunteer driver for nearly a decade.

“I volunteered all the time before; I was a scout leader, Sunday school teacher, homeroom mom and band booster,” she said. In 2011, as she started to become an empty nester with her children in college or preparing to enroll, she felt compelled to continue her volunteer service.

Family members had participated in Meals on Wheels programs in Pennsylvania, she said. She volunteered for the agency after seeing a request in her church bulletin.

“I feel I get more out of it than I give,” Knebel said. “I’ve enjoyed meeting these people and just admiring them. They have struggles — that’s why they’re getting meals delivered. But a lot of them have such a good attitude about life. It’s been a pleasure, really. It’s a nice thing — you give, but you get. It’s been one of my favorite things that I’ve ever volunteered for.”

Knebel delivers prepared meals every Wednesday morning from St. Francis Hospital to about a dozen West Side clients. She can usually complete her deliveries in two hours, occasionally with some extra time spent socializing with meal recipients.

“Some of the people you deliver to — they aren’t rude, but they’re not chatty. That’s fine, but there are people who like to talk. They’re lonely, and you may be the only person they talk to that day. So, for some, we stay and chat with them. It really isn’t a huge time commitment,” Knebel said.

Meals on Wheels board member Jim Hoke of South Hills is Knebel’s fellow St. Francis Wednesday route driver. “I enjoy just giving back. I’ve been blessed during my life with success, and this is just one way to give back. It’s very gratifying doing this work.”

Alan Kuhlman of Pinch has worked as a Meals on Wheels driver and now as a food packer for nearly four years.

“I’ve always volunteered for groups in Charleston, mostly arts-related groups,” Kuhlman said. “I was familiar with Meals on Wheels, because, for a while, my mom got it up in Connecticut. I’ve always appreciated what the organization does. Its mission is pretty easy; you’re helping people in need get some good, quality food and a little contact every day. It’s not a big commitment of time, but you need a steady supply of people and sometimes substitutes. I fill in for people, people fill in for me — that works pretty well.”

“This program could not continue without our great volunteer base, which, by the way, has an average age in the 70s, and the donations that come to us from the community,” Holland said.

She said she has been with Meals on Wheels for approximately 15 years, urged to do so shortly after she retired by her neighbor, and the program’s St. Francis Hospital coordinator, Helen Scragg.

Holland said when she receives interest from potential volunteers, via Facebook or other outlets, she asks them if they’re able to drive their own vehicle. “You have to provide your own transportation and gas.”

She also contacts the four participating hospitals to see which ones are in particular need of volunteers. “For example, once I find out that Women and Children’s Hospital needs volunteers, I would get them in touch with Cindy Boyd, the coordinator there. They could set up what days would work best for the volunteer. She would have you meet her there for one or two weeks and then do a ride-along to get the feel for it.”

A source of comfort

Sandy McClure of Elkview said her brother has received Meals on Wheels deliveries for nearly a year, since moving into a handicapped unit at Brooks Manor. “It’s been wonderful thing for us,” McClure said. “He’s not much on cooking, and he’s doing better now, but we know he’s getting at least one really nutritious meal a day there. The Meals on Wheels drivers are gracious, upbeat, positive people. They’ve been really great.”

Contributing to Meals on Wheels

Individuals interested in volunteering for the Meals on Wheels of Charleston program can obtain more information by contacting Bobbi Holland at 304-542-1712 or chefbobbih@aol.com or messaging Meals on Wheels Inc. of Charleston WV’s Facebook page.

Donations to the Meals on Wheels sponsorship fund can be made by sending checks to Meals on Wheels Inc. of Charleston, WV, Treasurer-Sponsorship Fund, 5313 Pamela Circle, Cross Lanes, WV 25313.

“All donations to the sponsorship fund are used for the purchase of meals,” Holland noted. “Since it’s all donation based, in the past, we’ve been fortunate to get several grants and donations from individuals, but some of those people have since passed and we don’t get those anymore.

“We charge our clients a dollar a meal and pay the hospitals $2,” the West Side resident said. “The only reason we charge [clients] is just for their dignity, so they don’t feel they’re getting welfare.”

The Meals on Wheels of Charleston Board of Directors’ next quarterly meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18, at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1600 Kanawha Blvd., E., in Charleston. Holland said those interested in learning more about the program are welcome to attend and social distancing guidelines will be followed.