Bill Maniscalco, manager of the Camas-Washougal Meals on Wheels People site, never expected to celebrate his one-year job anniversary quite so … alone.
“This is one of those jobs you just really look forward to going to everyday,” Maniscalco said. “For me, a big part of that is about the people — the volunteers who work in the kitchen, the tight knit group who comes (to the Washougal Community Center for hot lunches), the drivers.”
Maniscalco remembers the joy of setting up his first holiday party at the Washougal center in late 2019.
“We had a slew of volunteers here who were helping in the kitchen and serving. Mayor Molly (Coston) was here and the new police chief,” Maniscalco said. “There were over 100 people here. It was such a great day — and it really kicked in for me how special this community was.”
Just a few months after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday celebrations, Maniscalco — along with the rest of the country — was facing a very different day-to-day routine under COVID-19 restrictions that emphasized physical distancing and brought a slew of new clients to the Meals on Wheels People program, which provides nutrition services for seniors and other housebound individuals in Clark County, as well as Multnomah and Washington counties in Oregon.
Even before Governor Jay Inslee imposed his “stay at home” order in mid-March, the Meals on Wheels People group had closed its regular dining centers and moved people accustomed to eating and socializing at locations like the Washougal Community Center onto a regular Meals on Wheels delivery route.
The program saw an uptick in requests for services immediately after the “stay at home” orders happened in Washington and Oregon, said Meals on Wheels People spokesperson Julie Piper Finley.
“We’ve had so many people who never would have considered (having meals delivered to their homes), but they were over 65 and worried about their health and afraid to go out, so they started looking at Meals on Wheels as an option,” Piper Finley said.
The requests for delivery jumped from 5,000 per day to 8,000 per day, Piper Finley said: “The phones started ringing off the hook. There were literally thousands of people calling (and requesting Meals on Wheels People’s services).”
In Camas-Washougal, the requests were up 32 percent over the past year, with 7,916 meals delivered to older adults in Camas-Washougal between Jan. 1 and April 20 of this year compared to 5,995 meals during the same period of time in 2019.
“Meal numbers for (Clark County) are up 26 percent year-over-year, so we have seen a significant jump in Washougal compared to the rest of Clark County,” Piper Finley said.
Luckily, the group’s main kitchen, located in Portland’s Multnomah Village neighborhood and capable of producing 24,000 meals a day, could accommodate the new delivery requests.
Of course, Meals on Wheels has always been more than just a food-delivery service. For many seniors, the volunteer drivers who deliver their meals are the only people they see throughout much of the week.
The COVID-19 crisis, however, has dramatically changed the way Meals on Wheels People operated. Now, instead of drivers stopping into a client’s home a few times a week to drop off meals and chat, the drivers must deliver seven meals at one time to limit exposure. When they arrive, with masks on, the drivers ring the client’s doorbell,
Place the meals on the porch or doorstep, and step back 10 feet.
“It’s not the same personal interaction, but we wanted to make sure we’re still checking on people,” Piper Finley said. “And we have staff calling at least once a week to make sure they’re OK and asking if they have other issues — do they have enough pet food? Are they having any problems?”
The organization also started a “Friendly Chat” program with about 100 volunteers who are willing to call and talk to people stuck at home.
“They can chat about whatever,” Piper Finley said, as long as that “whatever” doesn’t involve highly charged topics like religion or politics or sensitive information such as medical conditions.
Maniscalco said he is impressed by how easily the volunteers and clients in Camas-Washougal have adapted to the new rules.
“We went from four days of deliveries, to three days, to one day a week — and not one client complained,” he said. “We haven’t had one complaint about having to change things.”
In some ways, Maniscalco said, the new rules have even brought the Meals on Wheels People staff and volunteers closer to those who depend on their services.
“Some of the people I’m talking to on well-check calls are saying they’re really over this, that they just want to go to the movies or to a restaurant, but most of the clients are just staying the course — having Zoom chats with family and talking to their friends on the phone. There are a lot of clients I talk to who live alone and that has got to be an extra challenge, but they say they appreciate it that we check on them. We’re just here to listen and to check in every day.”
As for Maniscalco, he says he’s more than ready to return to “normal” operations, but understands it might be a more gradual process.
“Everybody yearns to have the band back together, to get our family back together,” he said. “But we need to do that safely and just take our lead from the governor and our local officials.”
Although the program had some regular volunteer drivers drop out toward the beginning of the crisis — usually because they themselves fell into a more vulnerable population and didn’t want to catch or spread COVID-19 — Piper Finley said the outpouring of new volunteers has been astounding.
“We no longer need any volunteers. And I can’t believe I’m saying that,” Piper Finley said. “It’s crazy to think I’m saying that, because usually we are in need of volunteer drivers.”
The organization does still need donations and items for homebound seniors, such as toilet paper, pet food, personal hygiene items and sanitary products. Meals on Wheels People is not accepting donations through its regional sites like the Washougal Community Center, but will accept donations at the central kitchen in Southwest Portland.
To learn more about donating or signing up for services, visit mealsonwheelspeople.org.