Every day, a dedicated group of volunteers makes a difference in the lives of those in the community who need help most.
To honor those men and women, the Woodbridge-based Meals on Wheels program is turning things around this month. On Oct. 20 program administrators plan to thank their volunteers and serve them a hot lunch at the Convention Center at John F. Kennedy Medical Center, Edison.
This year, four volunteers are celebrating 25 years with the program and eight others will be recognized for hitting the 10-year mark, according to Barbara Lemchak, who coordinates the program in the local area.
Volunteer Maureen Jenkins has been with this program the longest — since its inception in 1974.
For 29 years, people in the towns of Metuchen, Edison and Woodbridge have come to rely on the service of these volunteers.
"Our program is for anybody who can’t prepare their own meal," said Lemchak, program director, from her office in the Public Health Center Building in George Frederick Plaza.
Recipients of aid "don’t have to be seniors" to qualify, she noted.
Lemchak, an Edison resident and mother of four, has been with the program five years and credits her mother with finding her the job. Her mother learned of the opening at the Woodbridge Senior Center in Colonia.
This Meals on Wheels program has about 130 volunteers serving meals to about 65 clients, who are divided into six routes.
"This is a lot of volunteer work," said Lemchak. "It’s amazing."
Meals on Wheels provides home delivery five days a week of a hot as well as a cold meal, which arrive around lunch time.
Clients do not know ahead of time what will be the day’s menu. On one particular day, clients received beef stroganoff, noodles, green beans and soup for their hot lunch and a tuna sandwich, applesauce and blueberries for their cold meal.
Provisions are also made for the few times each year when delivery is canceled because of inclement weather.
Clients are provided with a five-day supply of nonperishable provisions like soups, tuna and cereal to have on hand. The food is then sorted, bagged and labeled at the First Presbyterian Church in the Iselin section of Woodbridge.
New clients come to the program through recommendations from the hospital, Office on Aging, family members or neighbors.
Meals on Wheels purchases all the food it serves from JFK hospital. JFK makes all the food, with help from dietary nutritionists, who speak with clients’ doctors.
Many clients are on special or restricted diets. For example, some are on low-salt or restricted liquid diets or are diabetic.
Lemchak says she gets calls from people who want to donate food to the program, especially around holiday time. Meals on Wheels cannot accept outside food, and she refers all inquiries to local soup kitchens.
Many of the volunteers are retirees or stay-at-home moms. New volunteers are never sent out alone. Jenkins goes out with them. Recently, 14 new volunteers from the Wachovia Bank in Edison signed up as substitutes.
"They’re wonderful and able to come at the last moment," said Marion Feliks, a food packer.
Many of the volunteers provide more than just hot meals for the clients they serve. They provide a much-needed break from solitude.
"Sometimes our people are the only ones they see all day," Feliks said of certain clients. "Some have no family, and that’s hard."
Most days around 11 a.m. Feliks and Barbara Golden, part-time employees of the program, finish packing the meals.
"This one gets a birthday card," Feliks said while preparing meals last week.
Lemchak keeps track of clients’ birthdays and makes sure to recognize them.
To prepare for their run, Isabel and Mel Wolock of Metuchen enter through the receiving doors at JFK and pick up the two coolers, insulated bag, and basket to transport the food from the car to the home, and a binder containing clients’ names, addresses and directions.
It is "no big deal to do this once a month," said Isabel, a retired Rutgers University professor.
Mel, a retired Metuchen High School guidance counselor, is the driver and Isabel is the "jumper," or the person who goes to the door with the food.
According to Mel, the food always smells good, and there is quite a variety.
The Wolocks said they are impressed with the program, which they describe as very organized. Bags and containers are labeled and dated with the clients’ names. The hot meals are labeled the same way and put in insulated bags in order of delivery. A two-person team simply follows the order in the binder. Directions are given, as well as which door of the client’s home to go to.
On one stop, Bill, an 83-year-old Edison resident who is unable to leave his home, had high praise for the program.
"These people saved my life," he said.
"My niece and nephew took the bull by the horn and got in touch with Meals on Wheels."
Since Bill is suffering from the effects of severe kidney problems, he had to give up driving.
George, a Metuchen resident, is a retired Army corporal who served in World War II.
"One day he was so happy to see me that he gave me a kiss," Isabel Wolock said.
Virginia Patrick, who lives in the Fords section of Woodbridge, and Mary Jane James, Edison, are both retired Edison teachers who volunteer their time.
"You feel good when it’s done," Patrick said of her service. "It teaches me a lesson in gratitude. [The clients] become a part of your life."
According to those involved, Meals on Wheels is always looking for helpers. Volunteers do not have to deliver five days a week.
For more information, call Barbara Lemchak at (732) 494-4141 weekdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.