The greeting that Richard Abels got when Lafayette Willis came to the door is part of his “payment” as a volunteer for the Meals on Wheels program.
Willis, standing in the door of his home in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, said he’s been getting the daily hot meals for a little while.
“And he’s real good at bringing them. I appreciate him so much,” said Willis, motioning toward Abels. “He always greets me with a smiling face.”
“Underneath the mask,” Abels said.
For the past two years, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Abels signed up to help with the Volunteers of America Colorado program. The organization prepares and delivers an average of 600,000 meals a year out of its kitchen at its headquarters in the Five Points neighborhood.
From 500 to 600 hot meals are delivered each weekday and about 750 boxes with a five-day supply of frozen meals are delivered each week to people who are homebound.
Abels and other volunteers provide the people power to ensure that those who aren’t able to go shopping or fix their own meals don’t go without food.
“All of these clients for the most part, they don’t get out, they don’t have mobility. This is their one hot meal a day,” Abels said.
After being in the corporate world and running his own communications consulting business, Abels was looking for a way to contribute that was “very on the ground, really grassroots.”
“I had known about Volunteers of America and Meals on Wheels and I saw something one day that said they were looking for drivers and I sort of put that in the back of my head,” Abels said.
He figures some days he’s one of the few people the clients see.
“What better thing to do than to help people out who are really in a situation,” he said.
The 70-year-old Abels, who moved to Denver from Chicago 43 years ago, worked a little bit in the VOA kitchen where the food is prepared but likes delivering the meals better.
“I like the interaction with the people even if it’s just, ‘Hi how are you, it’s good to see you. You doing OK today?’”
Abels has gotten to know his clients. In some cases, he knocks on the door to let them know their food has arrived and waves to them. Other clients ask him to put the food in the freezer for them. If it snows, he has asked clients if they want him to shovel their walk.
Abels also fills in when other drivers can’t make it, said Natalie Gill, a marketing program manager at VOA. A total of about 150 people drive the coolers and boxes to central drop-off points and pick up the food to take to individual homes.
“There’s a pretty long wait list right now with certain areas with Meals on Wheels because we don’t have the volunteers. We’re always in need of Meals on Wheels volunteers,” Gill said.
Roughly 130 people are currently on a waiting list to receive the meals. Clients must be 60 or older and live within the seven-county delivery area. There is no set cost for the meals and people pay what they can or nothing.
Abels started out driving a route on Thursdays and added two contiguous routes on Fridays. Gill said Abels is willing to take extra shifts and fill in when other volunteers cancel at the last minute.
“That’s huge for us because things come up and we get a lot of cancellations,” Gill said. “Sometimes staff members need to fill in or you just kind of have to figure it out as you go.”
Program managers said Abels goes above and beyond and his “connection to the clients always shines through,” she added.
Being a Meals on Wheels driver is one of the safer ways to volunteer during the pandemic, Gill said. “You’re alone in your car, delivering meals to the client’s door.”
When he started making deliveries, Abels equipped himself with gloves, masks and hand sanitizer. On a recent delivery day, he pulled into the parking lot of a neighborhood church to pick up the boxes and coolers full of food for the people on his route.
Abels pulled out the lists that match people’s names with the food they get. Some clients get just two hot meals a week. People are provided with emergency boxes with frozen or nonperishable food in case of bad weather.
“On Fridays, in addition to the hot meal we deliver a two-day frozen box so that they have a meal Saturday and Sunday,” Abels said.
Hundreds of people keep the wheels rolling for the program, Abels added. They include the cooks, people who box the food, the drivers and companies that donate the coolers and other items.
“The need is, sadly, way too great. You can do a little part and it’s real,” Abels said. “I would say that for a really small investment in time, and it could be as little as two hours a week or even two hours a month, the reward that you get is far bigger.”
For more information about Meals on Wheels, call 303-294-0111.