For manager Diana Colley, kitchen coordinator Carolyn Rondon and steadfast volunteers, packaging and delivering meals for the Lorain County Office on Aging's Home Delivered Meals Northeast program, is not just a job or something to do. It's a mission.

And the 140 senior residents in Avon, Avon Lake, Sheffield Lake and Sheffield Village are grateful for their commitment. The program has grown from 109 in January to 140 presently, Colley said.

Avon Lake resident Dennis Zywotek is one of them. When he greeted volunteer Shermane Smith at his front door Nov. 11, he said the program was a tremendous help. “It relieves the pressure of having to go out shopping and preparing a meal,” the 71-year-old said, adding that the meals are excellent.

Avon resident Harriet Thompson, 85, concurs. She asked that meals be delivered when she became unable to drive a few years ago. Last year, she experienced a medical emergency that prompted her to rethink how she was eating.

There's more to it than meal delivery, according to Thompson. “I think it's good to see somebody regularly.” Despite COVID-19 policies that prevent visiting and have volunteers employing contactless delivery, she said they still wave or say hello through the door with their masks on. Thompson said her family is comforted to know someone is checking on her regularly.

That's excellent news to Smith, who retired from United Way of Lorain County last year and was looking for a meaningful volunteer experience. “My neighbor told me about the program and it sounded like something I could do to be helpful and continue my volunteer work.”

Smith and her husband, Dennis, team up to deliver food. “It just makes it a little easier if there is a driver and a jumper,” she said. The jumper gets the food from the car and delivers it to the client's door. As they travel their delivery route, sometimes in Avon, and other days in Avon Lake, they phone clients to let them know they are on the way. That way, they leave the bagged meal at the door and then wait in the car until they see the client take the bag into their home.

Rondon said COVID-19 has had a big impact on what they do. When she started with the program, housed at the Joyce Hanks Center in Sheffield Lake, she was cooking hot meals five days a week.

Now meals are prepared by a contracted catering company and delivered frozen to the center. Rondon said bread items like multigrain rolls or buns, along with fruit like apples or oranges and cookies and/or milk are regular accompaniments to the meals. Items are placed in brown paper bags for each senior participant. Client names are written on them, and all the bags for a particular route are placed in cases that look like those of food delivery services.

She is still responsible for ensuring the meals and milk are “temped out,” as she called it, before being packed for delivery. She must also record temperatures in a report.

Rondon readily admits she misses cooking for “her seniors,” but understands safety comes first. Colley said meals occasionally arrive in large family-style containers. On those days, Rondon heats them, then she and volunteers divide food into individual containers. A monthly meal menu is developed by Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging to ensure meals are nutritious and that portion sizes are controlled.

Colley, who is Rondon's mom, has worked for more than two decades for nonprofits and became certified through the state to cook and coordinate the program. Her days are spent ordering food, working with clients and supporting volunteers. She is also responsible for maintaining an emergency food pantry at Hanks Center and helping those in need access it.

Colley and Rondon say volunteers are the backbone of the program, something echoed by Thompson. “The volunteers are just wonderful. They are so cheerful. I can't say enough about how much I appreciate them.” Thompson said her appreciation is even more profound this year..

Colley said the program has lost some volunteers as a result of the pandemic. She hopes a few people will step up to help. The most urgent need is for drivers who can deliver meals on Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday. It takes about two hours to pick up meals, deliver them and return food carriers to the center. If the program can replace the drivers it lost, routes can be restored and shortened, reducing the time it takes to complete a route. Volunteers receive mileage reimbursement.

Once COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed, Rondon hopes they will begin cooking meals again and delivering five days a week, which is how things worked pre-pandemic.

Anyone interested in volunteering can phone Colley at 440-949-8146. Donations are also accepted. Checks should be made payable to Lorain County Office On Aging and mailed to 320 Gateway Blvd. N, Elyria, Ohio 44035. Note on the check that the donation is meant for Home Delivered Meals Northeast.

Nonperishable food items can be donated to the emergency pantry. Colley suggested donors call before coming to make sure someone is there to receive them.

Residents of the four participating communities over age 60 may participate at little or no cost. Those communities provide annual funding to support the program through council-approved contracts. (see sidebar).

Contact freelance writer Michele Murphy at avonlakemurphy@gmail.com.

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