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Meals On Wheels Coffee Event Leads To Conversation About Community Program’s Success And Importance

Published: May 11, 2017

A Coffee & Conversation event held a few weeks ago for drivers and board members of Newtown Meals On Wheels (MOW) was a “fabulous” event, Janet Hovius said a few days later. A volunteer with the local MOW group for 23 years, Ms Hovius is currently one of two recipient interviewers.

Dorothy Dwyer, another longtime MOW volunteer, hosted the April 27 event at her home, which welcomed 70 people, she said. Ms Dwyer and Ms Hovius sat down after the gathering to talk about it, and the importance of Meals On Wheels.

“The board decided, because we haven’t had a coffee for our drivers for probably five years, that it was time to do that,” Ms Hovius said May 1. “There have been several new drivers join us during that time, so we wanted them to be able to put names to faces for each other. We felt that was important.”

The morning event also provided the opportunity for board members to inform the large pool of volunteers what the board takes care of, MOW’s treasury and how the food is paid for, and how Newtown residents become MOW recipients.

“A lot of them really don’t know this,” Ms Dwyer commented. “They sign up to drive, and go from there. This allowed them to learn all of that.”

Guests heard from Newtown MOW Treasurer Peg Forbell, who explained how meals are subsidized, and that MOW covers the costs of the packaging that meals are delivered in.

Co-Recipient Coordinator Judy Rosentel reportedly explained the job she shares with Ellyn Gehrett. Once notified of new recipients, those two take care of contacting driver callers, who add recipients to a route. They also contact each driver the day before the volunteers are due to deliver meals.
Driver Coordinator Colleen Honan shared her duties, which include keeping a daily calendar that tracks all of the drivers and their routes.

“She’s constantly busy,” Ms Dwyer said, “and she may be the only one who knows all the drivers.”

Co-Recipient Interviewer Marilyn Alexander discussed the interview process, how drivers are placed on one of four available routes, and the involvement — and importance — of Masonicare at Newtown.

“One of the most important things we did that morning was show everyone our map of Newtown, and the four quadrants our town is divided into,” Ms Hovius said. “I think drivers sometimes forget just how large this town us, and what it takes to get meals out to everyone. Showing them that map really helped drive home that point.”

Newtown MOW currently has 25 meal recipients, who can get meals delivered any weekday they sign up for. The program offers short- and long-term service. The average age of a recipient is currently 85 years old, according to Ms Dwyer and Ms Hovius, but there is no minimum or maximum age for those seeking help from Newtown MOW.

“Because we do not accept any state or federal funding, we can provide meals to residents of any age,” Ms Hovius said.

More than 100 volunteers take care of getting those meals from Masonicare, where they are prepared and packaged, out to the recipients each midday.

“We deliver meals 52 weeks a year, Monday through Friday, including holidays if they fall on a weekday,” Ms Hovius said. Newtown MOW averages eight or nine meal deliveries each Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to Ms Hovius. One couple, she said, makes a point of delivering meals on Christmas.

Funding for Newtown Meals On Wheels comes in part from the recipients, who are asked for a nominal fee per meal. Local organizations have also supported MOW over the years with donations.

Unlike other MOW programs, none of Newtown’s drivers or board members are paid. Newtown MOW is a completely volunteer driven, nonprofit, state chartered institution.

A Danbury company, UTC Aerospace Systems (formerly Goodrich), also helps MOW through its Helping Hands Fund.

“The employees of that company nominate local organizations, and then a committee works out a percentage of their donation, each May,” Ms Hovius said.

Additional funding occasionally comes from “very generous families” whose relatives are being helped by the organization.

“For some people, the delivery of their meal provides the only contact with someone their entire day,” Ms Dwyer said. “Families appreciate what we do not only for the food, but for the contact we often bring to their relatives.”

The women said there have occasionally been times when a MOW driver will arrive at a house and no one answers the door. In some cases, that has led to a call for help, and subsequently to medical attention for a resident who was unable to call for themselves.

Drivers are given training during their first outing. Most tend to volunteer for long stretches, the two women agreed.

Ms Hovius became involved in MOW in 1994, shortly after retirement.

“Annette Cantoloupo, a dietician at Fairfield Hills, approached me with the suggestion of joining,” she recalled.

“I had just retired from TR Paul, and really only knew people through the Labor Day Parade Committee.

“This was only my second volunteer job and man, I found a winner,” she added. “Thank you, Annette.”
Ms Dwyer’s introduction to MOW was similar.

“I joined 21 years ago, after I saw something in The Bee,” Ms Dwyer said. “We had just moved here, and we didn’t know anyone, and I thought I would join.

“Most drivers stick around for a while,” she said.

Ms Hovius agreed, saying, “People tend to stay, unless they move or have health issues.”

Ms Dwyer credits the longevity of MOW, as well as the length many volunteers stay involved, to the well-oiled machine Newtown Meals On Wheels has become.

“It’s the smoothest running organization I’ve ever been involved in,” she said. “They’ve got this thing down.”
“It’s probably the most satisfying one I’ve ever volunteered for,” agreed Ms Hovius, who has shared her time with other groups since signing on with MOW. “It’s very efficient. I find that volunteers really enjoy giving their time to a well-run organization. It’s very to important have things running well.”

“People don’t want to feel like their time is wasted,” Ms Dwyer said.

The opportunity to volunteer for as little as 90 minutes a month appeals to all ages.

“We have everyone from professional career people and retirees alike,” Ms Dwyer pointed out. First Selectman Pat Llodra is a former MOW driver, as is retired Newtown Bee Editor Curtiss Clark.

Meals include a warm food, including a protein, starch, and vegetable, plus fruit, juice or milk, a roll, and dessert. The meals are prepared at Masonicare under the strict supervision of a dietician, and cooked by a professional staff. The kitchen staff at Masonicare, which has been providing the meals for Newtown since 1995, is extremely flexible.

“We can serve for any health concerns that Masonicare prepares for their clients,” Ms Hovius said. “No or low salt, diabetic, mechanically softened foods; they can all be requested.”

Masonicare only charges for the cost of the food. Its staff is cognizant of the facility’s key role in the local meal program’s success.

“They step up when they’re needed,” said Ms Hovius. “They’re amazing.

“We had a snowstorm approaching in March, and they made sure everyone was in that kitchen, preparing our meals, well before the snow arrived,” she said.

Early History Of Newtown’s Program

According to notes prepared for Newtown Meals On Wheel’s 40th anniversary in 2012, it was apparent to local social service organizations by September 1972 that there was growing need to deliver meals to the aged, convalescent, and handicapped members of this town who, for physical, psychological, or economic reasons were unable to prepare food for themselves. This has always been done regardless of income.

Betty Parella, a Newtown resident and a nutritionist who had experience with such a program based in Bloomfield, initiated research. Many field trips were taken, to observe programs in Bloomfield and Greenwich, Conn., and also in Pennsylvania.

In December 1973, the nonprofit corporation Newtown Meals On Wheels Inc was established. A board with 21 members was also elected that month.

A pilot program for delivering meals in Newtown was instituted in February 1974, with Buckingham Gardens Convalescent Home supplying the meals. In June 1974, Fairfield Hills Hospital was contracted to supply the meals.

Two years later, in 1976, Meals On Wheels delivered 2,428 meals to Newtown residents.

Following the closure of the state hospital, meal preparation returned in 1995 to Buckingham Gardens, which by then had been renamed Ashlar of Newtown. Ashlar subsequently became Masonicare of Newtown.

By the end of 2016, MOW had delivered 3,987 meals to 40 clients over the course of the calendar year.

Residents can become Newtown MOW recipients just by contacting its recipient interviewers (Marilyn Alexander, 203-426-6340, or Janet Hovius, 203-270-1960). All information is kept confidential.

New drivers are also always welcomed. Contact Colleen Honan at 203-426-0714. Drivers volunteer a minimum of one shift per month, which includes picking up meals from Masonicare, delivering them, and returning the delivery bags to Masonicare. Each round trip usually lasts 90 minutes, according to Ms Dwyer.

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