Meals on Wheels still delivering despite COVID-19 pandemic

CASSOPOLIS — Wednesday morning, Marty Heirty hiked a mask up over his nose and mouth before opening his car door and walking up to a porch in Vandalia, toting brown bags of frozen meals in his hands.

Donning a green mask herself, 103-year-old Mildred Filley answered the door with a warm greeting.

“How are you doing today, Ms. Filley?” Heirty asked as he handed over the bags. “Are you staying healthy? Staying well?”

The interaction was similar to hundreds of others that Cass County Council on Aging employees experienced this week, as the COA continues to run its Meals on Wheels program, which delivers hot and frozen meals to Cass County seniors, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are still out here and still serving the community,” Heirty, chief executive officer at the COA.

Mornings at the COA are a somewhat hectic affair, with coolers being filled and lists being double-checked to ensure each Meals on Wheels recipient gets their meals. Before drivers and navigators can leave the building, they each grab a facial covering as part of newly implemented procedures to protect both themselves and their senior clients from the COVID-19 virus.

Since the pandemic hit, bringing with it business closures and “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive orders, hot-meal requests have increased from an average of 50 meals per day to roughly 70 per day. The COA has also implemented a Five Free Frozen program, where area senior seniors are delivered five frozen meals, which so far has had 300 participants. While initially meant to be a one-time program, the Five Free Frozen program has now received increased funding from local, regional and state donors, which means the COA can offer a second round to Cass County seniors. 

In the wake of the pandemic, Heirty said the Meals on Wheels program is more important than ever, as it helps bring meals to homebound seniors in a time when grocery shopping is difficult and carries the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Additionally, Meals on Wheels workers can check in on clients and provide social interaction to seniors who cannot receive any other visitors due to the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order.

“For a lot of our clients, we are only people they see, and that social aspect is very important,” Heirty said. “We are providing an essential service.”

As the pandemic goes on, Heirty said the COA would continue to provide Meals on Wheels, and that the COA would be looking at other ways to maintain its other vital services to seniors in the county.

Like many businesses, the COA has had to face the struggle of balancing the importance of the work it does with employee safety, Heirty said. He said the COA has implemented additional sanitation and personal protection gear in addition to finding ways to allow employees increased time off to protect them in the wake of the pandemic. Still, he said he had been continually impressed with the way COA staff has responded to the pandemic.

“Everyone is really stepping up. There are people like our chef, Kevin, who haven’t taken a day — or even an hour — off,” Heirty said. “It’s incredible. We have people who do this work because they love it, and they know it needs to get done. … This is work you do because you are passionate about it. Everyone here is willing to do whatever it takes.”

Heirty is not the only one who appreciates the work his staff and volunteers are doing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — so do the Meals on Wheels recipients.

Sitting inside her kitchen, Mildred Filley said Meals on Wheels had been a program she has come to appreciate over the three months she has participated. 

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Their meals are wonderful. I really enjoy them.”

Those interested in receiving  Meals on Wheels or the Five Free Frozen program can call the COA at (269) 445-8110.

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