Mildred Hawkins, 85 (front) loves the look of some fresh nectarines that Meals on Wheels driver Jane Slager (right) brought into her kitchen this week. (Dan Bates/The Herald)

Meals on Wheels is ‘a godsend’ for more than 1,100 in county

This is part of The Daily Herald’s annual report on charity in Snohomish County. Complete list of stories

There are two signs at the door of Lenna Arsenault’s apartment. The first is a decorative wooden piece that says, “Angels gather here.” The second is hand-written and taped to the door: “Please don’t let my cat out.”

Arsenault lives with Mookie, a plump feline with black fur and a white undercoat. The pair moved in to a neat little apartment at a senior community in Everett about two years ago. Arsenault, a 68-year-old widow, has white hair, a wheelchair and a wicked sense of humor. She jokes about the four-letter word people aren’t supposed to say in her home.

“‘Fall’ is the F-word around here,” she said.

Arsenault has had two knee replacements and her knee gives out if she tries to stand. She scoots around her kitchen in the wheelchair, Mookie wending in a figure-8 around her legs.

Being unable to stand makes it hard to cook. Arsenault counts on the frozen dishes that Meals on Wheels driver Jane Slager brings to the door each week.

“It’s a godsend. I’m not kidding you,” she said. “When you can’t get up, it’s just a godsend.”

The frozen meals are in labeled, partitioned trays, stacked in brown paper bags that ride in coolers in the back of the white Ford E250 van Slager drives. Arsenault’s favorites are the beef tips and gravy, the lasagna and the turkey or ham. Slager also brings cat food for Mookie.

For Arsenault and hundreds of other seniors in Snohomish County, Meals on Wheels doesn’t cost a thing. They can get healthy, easy-to-heat dinners brought to their homes, enough for seven days at a time.

The program is operated by the nonprofit Senior Services of Snohomish County. It served 1,122 home-bound, frail or low-income seniors from July 2015 to July 2016. There are 252 more on a waiting list.

Every week, eight part-time, paid drivers and 14 volunteers deliver more than 3,000 meals all over the county, from snug neighborhoods in North Everett to woodsy homes on the backroads outside of Granite Falls.

About 60 percent of the funding for Meals on Wheels comes from the federal government and the other 40 percent comes from donations, grants or optional contributions from seniors who receive the meals. Cuts have been made due to limited funding. The service used to deliver 14 meals at a time to each senior.

There’s a constant need for financial support, organizers say. People don’t realize that for many of their older neighbors, Meals on Wheels may provide the only complete, healthy dinners they eat.

Slager, 62, has been a driver for four years.

On the morning of June 29, she loaded up the van and spread out a printed map of North Everett, marked with dots and names, on the center console. There usually are more than 20 homes on a route. They include tiny houses tucked in quiet neighborhoods and mobile homes near noisy construction zones. She’s learned how to navigate senior living centers with convoluted floor plans and to back the big van up the narrow streets of a trailer park.

Though she greets every senior with a smile and is quick to laugh at a joke, Slager takes her job seriously. She’s seen people on her routes who struggle with chronic illnesses, disabilities, depression and poverty. She and other drivers keep an eye out for signs of elder abuse or lack of self-care in people whose health is deteriorating. Meals often aren’t the only help needed.

“We’re the eyes and ears of these people,” Slager said. “Many of them are home-bound or have issues, so we can help them find other resources, too.”

Dorothy Sanders, 76, started getting Meals on Wheels when she was diagnosed with cancer in the right side of her face. That was about two years ago. She’s been through surgery and recovery. She lives alone but has a caregiver who comes to help around her apartment. She had four kids but lost one to drowning and another in a house fire.

Meals on Wheels is “a great help,” she said.

“I’ve got food in the house to cook, but if I want something simple, I can just throw it in a metal tin and let it cook in the oven,” she said.

Cliff Porter, 69, lives a few miles away. He used to be a radio anchor in Alaska and has the deep, booming voice to prove it. A tall man with glasses and silver hair, he’s lived in Everett since 1989. His house is decorated inside with a collection of art, model trains and memorabilia, including a big stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear he won years ago while working at Sears.

His description of Meals on Wheels echoes Arsenault’s.

“It’s been a godsend,” he said. “I just wish I could make more contributions. I do what I can.”

Porter comes from a family that has a hard time asking for help. His mom grew up living above a grocery store that his grandpa owned during the Great Depression. Most of his siblings would be too proud to seek assistance if they needed it, he said.

Porter signed up for Meals on Wheels for a simple reason: “I needed to eat.”

The meals are good, he said, though he adds margarine to the veggies and ketchup to the Salisbury steak.

Dietitians plan the meals and work with seniors who have special diets. The meals are relatively bland because they can’t add too much salt or sugar. Along with frozen food, Meals on Wheels brings rolls and, thanks to a grant, fresh fruit and vegetables. The last week of June, it was coleslaw and blueberries. Not everyone on Slager’s route was excited about coleslaw, but the fresh berries were a hit.

Mildred Hawkins, 85, lives with her daughter. Both have battled illnesses recently, including bouts of pneumonia that put them in the hospital for several days, she said. Her daughter helps cook when she can and they go out to eat once a month. That’s a special treat.

Meals on Wheels has been a lifeline for Hawkins.

“They’ve been great for me because there’s so many times that I don’t like to cook or anything,” she said.

“They bring the meals to me and I don’t feel like I’m being persecuted.”

Delivering meals can take a toll on employees and volunteers. Slager has been bitten by a dog on one of her routes. She finished the last two houses that day and then went to the emergency room. She also has mornings when she finds out last-minute that one of her seniors has died and she won’t be loading the brown paper bag with that name on it into the van.

The joys outweigh the sorrows, though. It’s rewarding to build relationships and make a difference in someone’s life. One stop out of dozens for a driver might be the highlight of the week for the person getting the food. Many of the drivers are retired from other jobs and came to Meals on Wheels to help others, Slager said.

“We call it seniors helping seniors.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com

How to volunteer

Senior Services of Snohomish County is looking for volunteers for Meals on Wheels and other related programs. Useful skills include home repair, grief counseling, customer service or health and wellness expertise. To volunteer, call 425-265-2294.

Donations of pet food, incontinence supplies and gently used household items are accepted at the Opportunity Shoppe thrift store, 6915 Evergreen Way. Monetary donations also are needed. To donate, call 425-290-1262 or go to sssc.org/donate.

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