Tyler Meals On Wheels site manager Winl Lambeth, 77, knows her regular customers by name, and greets newcomers as friends she hasn’t yet met.
Helping seniors stay connected with wholesome, nutritious meals seems as important for the body as for the soul, evidenced by the happy chatter of people visiting Ms. Lambeth’s registration table to donate money for a noon meal.
“I’ve been employed by Meals On Wheels for about 17 years, I really enjoy it,” Ms. Lambeth said from the meal distribution site at the Tyler Senior Center, 1915 Garden Valley Road. “Most of our people are regulars. Some come to participate in exercise and then stay. They are made to feel welcome.”
The Meals On Wheels Ministry in East Texas, headquartered in Tyler at 3001 Robertson Road, delivers many of more than 3,000 lunches in Smith, Gregg, Henderson, Van Zandt, Upshur and Wood counties directly to people in their homes, relying mostly on generous volunteers — mostly retirees — for labor and gas.
Many clients are homebound, disabled and live in isolated rural areas, but the organization also has congregate sites, such as the one at the Senior Center, which are capable of serving multiple people at one time, in one place.
The concept of concentrating resources saves valuable labor resources and provides opportunities for fellowship, according to Zoe Lawhorn, Meals On Wheels Vice President of Development & Public Relations.
“It (congregate sites) serves a real specific need in the community,” she said. “Some have games and activities, which people really enjoy. They (sites) also save a lot of money. … We try to make sure we are able to meet the needs of our clients.”
Similar sites are at Tyler’s University Christian Church and in Whitehouse, Mineola, Canton, Malakoff, Alba, Big Sandy, Chandler, Hawkins, Gladewater, Lindale, Quitman and Athens, she said.
Meals served by the ministry are heart-healthy, diabetic friendly and meet the Recommended Daily Allowance for seniors, officials said.
The congregate site at the Senior Center serves roughly two dozen seniors each weekday for a suggested $3 donation. Those who cannot afford to pay the entire amount are not turned away to go hungry. When the center closes for the holidays, participants can sometimes pick up frozen meals that can be warmed at home.
To Ms. Lambeth and many others, the distribution site is more than a place to eat lunch; it’s a home away from home.
“I’m semi-retired and this gives me some place to come,” she said. “I can participate in activities, whatever I choose. I enjoy visiting with friends and I’m glad to see them happy.”
Volunteers are a driving force for ensuring Meals On Wheels meets the demands of both its off-site and congregate delivery operations, saving the organization about $750,000 a year, Ms. Lawhorn said.
Longtime Meals On Wheels volunteer Mattie Spruill, 88, is among the more than 1,000 people who help the agency. She works alongside Ms. Lambeth, organizing utensils, distributing food and cleaning up afterward.
“I’ve been doing this about 15 years, I’m not sure,” she said with a grin. “I try to make sure everything gets set out and if anything needs cleaning up, I help with that, too. I think if I had to stay home every day, I would die of boredom.”
Retired retailer Ruby Curry, 82, is another of Ms. Lambeth’s volunteers, spending more than seven years unpacking, warming and distributing lunches at the center.
“I volunteer because I like doing what I do,” she said. “When I lived in California, I used to volunteer for senior services companies and I enjoyed it, taking people to the grocery store, shopping, doing simple things. Most of these people here, you get used to doing for them. If they are handicapped, you put the meals on the table for them. I like helping them help themselves.”
Busy retiree Lea Thomas spends the bulk of her week volunteering for other Tyler nonprofits, but manages to run by the center and grab a nutritious lunch with friends.
“I’m attached to this place, I look forward to coming,” she said. “It feels like an extended family here.”
Retirees Ray and Norma Patterson agree. The couple delivers Meals On Wheels one day a week and wraps up their route with lunch, also at the center. Between them, they’ve logged a combined 24 years of service for the food ministry.
“It helps someone else,” Mrs. Patterson said. “I guess you could call it a mission.”
To learn more about the Meals On Wheels Ministry, call 903-593-7385.