Meals on Wheels has been an important part of senior care in Yellowstone County for well over a quarter century. Nationally the program got its start some 60 years ago in Philadelphia.
It provides a nutritious, well-balanced meal to those over 60 years old who are homebound, unable to prepare a balanced meal or have no one available to prepare a meal. Eligibility is on a case-by-case basis.
But it’s more than a meal, it’s a connection to the outside world, all done by a team of volunteers.
On a cold Thursday morning in March, just after 10:00am, Jerry Frank is loading the van that belongs to the Adult Resource Alliance of Yellowstone County.
Frank’s route this day goes all the way out to 64th West. It is one of the longest in Billings, 26 miles, but it is scenic.
“It’s a beautiful drive, even in the summertime,” said Frank.” This drive is awesome because we go out into the cornfields and stuff west of Billings. They’re fantastic to see, as the corn comes up, as it grows, as the stalks come up, as the corn comes on the stalks. “
On this trip Frank has eleven stops. Sometimes it is as high as 18 but the number changes with cancellations, clients moving out of their home to assisted living or a nursing home.
Jaime Carpenter, Billings Meals on Wheels Coordinator, said she does try to limit the number of stops a driver makes.
“We don’t more than 20 on a route,” Carpenter said. ”I try to keep it around 15 because it’s nice for people to have time to visit, check on people, and do things like that so that’s my perfect number.”
The drivers visit with the clients is the other critical element in the program. Frank said a lot of these people they deliver to have no family in the area. Sometimes the only people they see regularly are the Meals on Wheels drivers.
Elorace and husband Clarence K have some college students who shovel their walk and driveway but they call the drivers, like Jerry Frank, a lifesaver.
Elorace said, “We couldn’t get along without him.”
For others, like Vivian, Frank is a friendly face and someone to joke with. And the meals are pretty good,
The Billings program is always looking for more drivers. Each potential driver starts out with the volunteer program with the application process, a background check, and proof of insurance, and then accompanying a regular driver on a route or two.
Frank uses the van although he does use his own 4-wheel drive pickup when road conditions are bad. Other drivers use their own vehicle, keep track of mileage and get a re-imbursement, although some of the drivers turn their mileage checks back to the program as a donation or don’t even submit mileage.
The program is funded by private donations, as well as federal, state and local money. And the client is charged a stipend for the meals he or she receives.
Jerry Frank has been driving for two years. A couple of his fellow drivers have been behind the wheel for more than 20 years, delivering meals, smiles and a sympathetic ear.