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Retired trucker boosts growing volunteer roster at Meals on Wheels

Sault program's still down volunteers from pre-COVID numbers but keeping up, says coordinator
Jon Joyce and his dog, Toby, who travels with Jon for Meals on Wheels deliveries.

Solutions to some of our most vexing problems are often right in front of us.

Simple acts and gestures make a world of difference.

Meals on Wheels is a well-established program that keeps people out of long-term care and in their homes. It provides healthy meals for the body and a boost for the lonely soul.

A Meals on Wheels volunteer and the program’s co-ordinator shed some light on making a difference in the community.

Jon Joyce drove trucks for a living.

He worked with computers at Sears for 20 years before hitting the road where he made a regular haul from Toronto to Sudbury for 16 years.

“That’s how I got to know the North,” he said. “That’s what kind of put me here after I retired.”

He sold his home in Niagara Falls in May 2019 and bought a bungalow in the Sault’s west end. Money he made on selling his home in southern Ontario is going into what he describes as his “fixer-upper.”

Joyce’s plan was to drive to Oshawa every other weekend and visit his 95-year-old mother who was in a retirement home.

She has since passed away, but the experience of taking care of his mom while she was living in her own home, coupled with his comfort on the road, made Meals on Wheels a natural fit.

It was also a good way for Joyce, who is 64, to become part of his new community and serve those who need help.

“You get to know the people,” he said. “It’s really more than just a meal. For a lot of them, especially now, that’s the only socializing they get.”

Having just moved here a year and a half ago, Joyce learned a lot about the history of his adopted hometown from clients who have lived here for decades.

Another community-minded deed Joyce accomplished since moving to Sault Ste. Marie was adopting a dog from the Humane Society. Toby accompanies Joyce on his runs and is popular among some of the people he visits. One of the ladies on his route knitted a blanket for Toby.

“There’s more sense of community,” said Joyce when describing what he enjoys about living in the North. He also appreciates the short commutes within the city as compared to travelling on the 400 series highways.

Joyce emphasizes that volunteering for Meals on Wheels is not a daunting task and encourages others to consider it.

His shift is basically a couple of hours from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The number of days a week varies, depending on the volunteer. The routes are clearly marked and easy to follow.

“It’s very easy. Even on the first day,” he said. He describes the staff and volunteers as extremely friendly.

The program is also important because it provides an opportunity to check up on vulnerable clients.

“If we drop off a meal and see the previous day’s meal still there that could mean trouble,” said Joyce.

In this type of situation, the volunteer reports what they saw and staff contact family members or take other action.

The Sault Meals on Wheels program serves 120 hot meals Monday to Friday.

There are also approximately 20 clients on the frozen meal program, who either have family pick up the meals every couple of weeks at the Davey Home, or who have them delivered by a volunteer every two weeks. Frozen meals are delivered to hot-meal clients who are unable to manage on the weekend and holidays.

Meals on Wheels program co-ordinator, Kendall Pickering, said that prior to COVID there were about 80 volunteers and now it’s about 50.

“We’ve had the most volunteer interest we’ve seen in years in the last few months which is fantastic ... We’re still not at our pre COVID numbers, but our numbers are improving each month,” said Pickering.

Potential clients can call the office to sign up for the service.

“We can have them started within one to two days. It takes about five minutes to complete the application over the phone,” said Pickering in an e-mail.

There is a three-week menu cycle, so meal variety isn’t an issue. The cost of a meal is $7.25.

“We generally change our menu twice per year as well to reflect the change of seasons,” said Pickering. “Examples of a meal would be mushroom soup, butter chicken over basmati rice, broccoli and naan bread and for dessert chocolate fudge cake. Another would be barley soup, Swedish meatballs over egg noodles, mixed vegetables and a whole wheat bun and for dessert french cream cake.”

Meals on Wheels boundaries are from Third Line, Goulais Ave and Boundary Rd.

“Expanding is something we would love to do. We don’t currently have a waitlist at this time which is fantastic. It all depends on the number of volunteers we have available at that time. With the interest we’ve seen lately from new volunteers, I can definitely see us adding more openings for potential clients,” said Pickering.

She said COVID was a big challenge for the organization. The majority of volunteers are over 65 years old, which automatically puts them at risk. The clients are also vulnerable people.

“Understandably, we lost around 40 volunteers when the pandemic was declared,” said Pickering.

The Sault Meals on Wheels program operates out of The Davey Home. When the home temporarily closed its doors to visitors last year, the daily hot meal service switched over to weekly drop-offs of frozen meals and wellness checks over the phone.

“We operated like that from March 2020 to August 2020. Although it was a completely different way of operating, it worked really well. It was a challenge, but we made it work,” said Pickering.

She also said COVID brought around $45,000 in emergency funding from the Ontario Community Supports Association. These funds provided food hampers to clients in the spring and fall of 2020.

Pickering said with the last round of funding, Meals on Wheels was able to pay for all of its hot meal client bills as a surprise Christmas gift, totalling around $15,000.

“We were also able to purchase sanitizer, masks, face shields, and sanitizing wipes to make sure our volunteers and clients are protected during the deliveries,” she said.

Pickering has been program coordinator since Jan 2019. She said it’s been an eye-opening experience.

“We often see clients at their most vulnerable, sometimes they’re confused as to what day it is, or why we’re bringing them food. Some of them haven’t seen anyone in a very long time and they can become overwhelmed with emotion when they open the door. It really is incredible how such a small act can brighten their day,” she said.

“There are community members in this city who live in really challenging circumstances and I think most people would be shocked to know that they might just be your neighbour. If you can, just take a moment to say hi, or ask if you can shovel their steps...drop them off a treat in their mailbox. Simple gestures like these make such a big difference to people who often feel forgotten and tucked away,” said Pickering in an e-mail. “This job has really taught me to slow down and be grateful for the things that matter the most.”

As a volunteer, Joyce agrees.

“It’s pretty grounding when you see some of the conditions some of them are living in.”