More Than a Meal

As Meals on Wheels approaches its 50th anniversary next year, the organization continues to be a pillar of community support in Lynchburg

Meals on Wheels Delivers Delight to Doorsteps

As Meals on Wheels approaches its 50th anniversary next year, the organization continues to be a pillar of community support in Lynchburg, serving individuals of all ages and income levels. Founded in 1974, the program relies on the dedication of volunteers and local fundraising efforts to provide nourishing meals and essential connections to those in need. 

Kris Shabestar, executive director for Meals on Wheels, said the organization is a community-supported entity that takes pride in meeting the needs of the local population. Unlike other programs that rely on state or federal funding, Meals on Wheels operates independently, enabling them to serve a diverse range of individuals without restrictions. From the youngest recipient at 23 to the oldest at 102, the program is committed to delivering sustenance and support to all who require it.

When government funding often comes with strict regulations and limitations, the nonprofit stands apart as a beacon of independence and discretion. Becky Tweedy, the organization’s communications director, emphasized their unique position, highlighting the freedom they have to use their discernment and adapt to the diverse needs of their recipients.

“There are unique situations that can cause someone to be homebound and we’re able to step in and fill that gap because there is a gap,” she said. “Last year 18 percent of the people we served were under the age of 60 and if we weren’t here to do that, then they wouldn’t have a resource.”

Meals on Wheels does not accept any government funding, Tweedy said, which grants them the liberty to navigate each situation individually and provide the necessary support.

The organization prides itself on its ability to respond swiftly in times of crisis. Shabestar said the organization remains agile and nimble, ready to provide assistance when unexpected situations arise. Through their emergency meals program, they ensure that anyone facing a crisis within their service area receives a meal the very next day. 

“Life happens and crazy things happen,” she said. “We are here for those crazy situations. If there’s a crisis, we can deliver a meal the next day.”

Covering 42 routes across the city of Lynchburg and Amherst and Campbell counties, Meals on Wheels relies on the dedication of volunteers to make their mission a reality. The delivery routes typically take between an hour and an hour and a half to complete, allowing volunteers to contribute their time based on their availability. 

Some volunteers commit to weekly deliveries, while others opt for monthly or occasional shifts. The flexibility and convenience of volunteering make it accessible to anyone who wishes to contribute, Tweedy said.

Tweedy estimates that they rely on the commitment of approximately 108 to 150 individuals. Each new route requires 10 to 12 volunteers, underscoring the perpetual need for volunteers to ensure Meals on Wheels can continue expanding its reach.

Photos by Ashlee Glen

She said volunteers often find fulfillment in knowing they are making an immediate and meaningful difference in someone’s life. Recipients, many of whom are isolated and lack family support, greatly appreciate the door-to-door interactions and the assurance that someone genuinely cares for their well-being.

“So many of the people we serve are isolated and many of them do not have any family connections or support,” Tweedy said. “Many of our recipients do not have an emergency contact on file and if they don’t answer the door, you can bet your bottom dollar we’re calling and following up or
going to the hospital. That sort of isolation can just be devastating.”

Beyond the nutritious meals, the Meals on Wheels program serves as a vital safety check
and a meaningful connection to the community for its recipients. 

“It’s a reason to get up in the morning, it’s a reason to read the paper, it’s a reason to listen to the news. It’s someone to talk to about your interests and your habits and your activities,” Shabestar said. “People ask, ‘How’s your dog?’ ‘How’d your doctor’s appointment go?’ Relationships are absolutely vital and that is why we do so much more than just deliver meals.”

Meals on Wheels goes above and beyond the delivery of meals, recognizing the importance of uplifting recipients’ spirits during special occasions. Birthday boxes, poinsettia deliveries during the holidays, and heartfelt cards from community members demonstrate the organization’s commitment to fostering joy and a sense of belonging. 

“A couple of years ago we did a survey of our recipients and 85 percent of those said they feel better, healthier, and stronger because they get Meals on Wheels, and it’s not just the food, it is the relationship we build,” she said. “One lady said this is the only present I will receive this year. Another lady said this was the first present she’s gotten in 20 years.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the demand for Meals on Wheels services. They are currently delivering 65 percent more meals than before the pandemic.

While the organization has been able to expand its reach and impact, the need for more volunteers, financial support, and advocates remains critical, Shabestar said.

“We definitely need more volunteers,” she said. “Everyone can do something. We need financial support and we need advocates. There’s a real misunderstanding about what we do, and who we can serve.”

According to Tweedy, the cost of delivering a meal through the organization is approximately $5.49, totaling around $27 per week, $110 per month, and $1,300 per year. She added that it is also noteworthy that 56 percent of the people served by Meals on Wheels live at or below the poverty level. Over 80 percent of these recipients receive their meals at no cost, while 8 to 10 percent contribute what they can afford. The organization operates on a sliding scale, allowing individuals to make a meaningful investment in their care, avoiding the stigma of accepting pure charity.

Shabestar said Meals on Wheels is not solely a long-term commitment but can also be a temporary solution during recovery periods, ensuring individuals regain their independence swiftly.

Recognizing the importance of companionship, the organization has also implemented an animal program. Pets serve as vital companions, particularly for those living alone. Additionally, Meals on Wheels accepts donations of cat food to ensure that pets remain well-fed, thereby alleviating the financial burden for lower-income individuals who might otherwise share their own meals with their furry friends.

“We found that they were sharing their meals, which is not healthy for the person, so we accept donations of pet food, which is collected at a number of veterinary clinics and other sites around town,” Tweedy said.

In September, the organization will serve its three-millionth meal, a major milestone,
Shabestar said.

“We’re delivering right now just under 600 meals a day,” she said. “We deliver every day, 52 weeks a year, even holidays, and that’s all due to volunteers and this community stepping up.”  

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