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Area Meals on Wheels tries to do more with less

At the Voluntary Action Center in Sycamore, volunteer Dee Anderson (left) is helped by coordinator Ron Mullen on Tuesday while carrying prepared meals to Anderson's vehicle to be delivered to Meals on Wheels clients.
At the Voluntary Action Center in Sycamore, volunteer Dee Anderson (left) is helped by coordinator Ron Mullen on Tuesday while carrying prepared meals to Anderson's vehicle to be delivered to Meals on Wheels clients.

Dee and Don Anderson bring meals to the elderly throughout DeKalb and Sycamore. But they don’t always stop there.

The Sycamore wife and husband have delivered meals for almost 20 years as part of the Meals on Wheels program run by the Voluntary Action Center. Sometimes they only have to drop off a paper bag of food at a client’s stoop. 

But in one case they helped a woman who was lying on the floor in her home and couldn’t get up. All the doors were locked, so they called a center representative, who in turn contacted the authorities for help.

Looking out for the clients is not one of primary duties for Meals on Wheels volunteers, but it is one of the many ways the program participants help care for senior citizens in the DeKalb County. 

“It’s a good service if nothing else to check on people,” Dee Anderson said. “Somebody comes once a day at least to check on them.” 

The funding for Meals on Wheels in the county will be reduced in October, though. Meal services on Saturdays already have been eliminated in response to the declining funds, said Ellen Rogers, associate director for the Voluntary Action Center, in an email. 

The program is facing reductions in October because of economic downturn over the past decade and the federal sequester, which led to cuts for federal programs and agencies. 

The reductions might lead to less service in rural areas of the county, less contact between drivers and clients and deliveries reduced to three days a week, Rogers said. 

The Voluntary Action Center receives its funding through the Older Americans Act, which allocates funding to the Illinois Department on Aging and 13 Area Agencies on Aging, she said. The center receives about 9 percent of their funding from an Area Agency on Aging in Rockford.

Funding associated with the Older Americans Act has not kept up with the rising costs of food, fuel and utilities, Rogers said. 

“In reality, we realize a net reduction each year and have for about the last 10 years,” Rogers said. 

Last year, the Voluntary Action Center spent more than $500,000 on the program and it anticipates spending that much again next year, Rogers said. She’s hoping fuel costs will stay low and not increase the agency’s costs.

Between 250 and 280 people are served by the Meals on Wheels program daily and about 1,500 volunteers participate throughout the year. Program leaders have been able to meet only a small part of the increased need for services because of funding and capacity.

About 10 percent of people the program now serves are on waiting lists throughout the county, she said. While Voluntary Action Center leaders continue to receive community support and hold fundraisers, they anticipate the number on the waiting list will double if funding reductions are not offset, Rogers said.

In order for the Voluntary Action Center to maintain the program, 75 percent of the costs would have to come from local sources, she said. 

“Meals on Wheels in DeKalb County will continue,” Rogers said. “The immediate future of the program will likely include delays in beginning services and changes in how the meals are delivered.” 

DeKalb resident Loretta Gullickson, 73, has been using the Meals on Wheels service for nearly three years after her husband died. She’s noticed no change in the quality of service. 

“I think a lot of people need it,” Gullickson said. “It makes sure they eat right and you don’t have to cook.” 

A survey in March of the program found 92 percent of clients indicated this service helped them remain in their homes, Rogers said. The program is an integral part of maintaining independent living, she said.

“It is a program that helps to reduce the need for much more costly alternatives of care for our elderly and persons with disabilities,” Rogers said. 

The program also ensures the well-being of clients, she said. 

Don Anderson enjoys talking with one client in particularly, who is bedridden because of disease. When he comes through the door to greet her, she’ll ask how he’s doing, knowing he’s diagnosed with cancer. 

“And I ask her how it’s going,” he said, “and the last thing she says is: ‘You’re in my prayers.’ ”

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