Last December, Dorothy Morrissey, 86, of Andover got a surprise with her meals on Wheels lunch delivery.
"It was a handmade Christmas card from a Bancroft Elementary School classroom," said Morrissey. "I was very touched by that."
She was so moved by the gesture that she wrote a letter of thanks to the school. A couple months later, a return note arrived from one of the students who created the card. The student wanted to know more about Morrissey and asked her to write back.
"Pen pals between generations," Morrissey said with a glowing grin. "It just warms my heart."
Stories like that make the Meals on Wheels program, which operates out of the Andover Senior Center, an invaluable resource to home-bound elders.
"Meals on Wheels is not just a meal. It's a connection to the community," said Jane Burns, director of elder services.
That connection is more vital than ever in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"As seniors quarantine, their access to food is diminished,'' said Burns. "The program allows them access to a hot, nutritious meal. This is a frightening and stressful time, and we are able to reduce their stress around food."
Recently, six state and local leaders accepted an invitation to deliver hot lunches to show their support for March for Meals month, an event held in March of each year. The event honors the national nutrition program which was started in 1972.
"We all share concern for those who are isolated at home, not eating well, and not getting the nutrition they need," said Jenna Lambert, director of Community Services in Andover. "All of those things can lead to a cascade of other medical issues, so we're here ... to highlight the importance of the program."
Lifeline at a time of crisis
Once a candidate for the program is identified, a licensed social worker makes an in-home visit to determine their level of need.
"It could be someone who has had a knee or hip replacement who needs that recovery meal," said Burns. "It could be someone whose medical situation prohibits them from getting out for other reasons."
Because of the coronavirus, the Andover Department of Elder Services has decided to waive the screening process for receiving meals.
"The Meals on Wheels program represents something the town does that goes unnoticed, but has immeasurable impact on people's lives," said Town Manager Andrew Flanagan. "From a budgetary perspective the program has very little impact, but a huge reward on the taxpayer's investment."
The rewards come in many forms, from the camaraderie of the kitchen staff that prepares the food to the bond formed between the driver delivering the meal and the senior citizen receiving it.
"I've been delivering the same route for two years, so I've developed a rapport with the people I deliver to," said Gail Woodworth, a 20-year Andover resident. "I always get a thank-you and a big smile and that really makes my day."
Occasionally, Woodworth even gets a compliment.
"She's a honey," said a smiling Ruth Marble, 93, of her lunch provider.
Marble and her 92-year-old husband, Ray, believe they are healthier because of Meals on Wheels.
"I love the lunch she brings because it's complete,'' Marble said. "If I made a meal myself, I'd have one thing, but here I get the whole works."
'We're like a family here'
Andover is one of only four towns in the Merrimack Valley with senior centers that employee an on-site chef, which means production of higher-quality meals.
"Our dignitaries who stepped in today got the opportunity to see the kitchen (staff) pull the turkey out of the oven and package it up," Burns said of the town and state officials who helped deliver meals recently. "So those seniors are getting a hot, fresh turkey meal today."
Frank Melendez, director of nutrition and food services, has been running the kitchen for two decades with a staff of 25 volunteers.
"I have three volunteers who have been here almost 20 years with me, and a lot of others are 10-plus (years)," said Melendez. "They're just great people. We're like a family here."
The Andover Senior Center provides hot meals to 100 senior citizens every day. Besides providing meals on wheels, the center is known as a "congregate meal site" — each weekday anyone can walk in and order a hot lunch.
COVID-19 changed all that, forcing the center to close its doors to the public. In response, the center is offering a home-delivered meal to those who formerly stopped by for lunch.
"Wednesday through Friday, each recipient will receive two meals in addition to a reserve so they will have enough food to carry them through the weekend," said Burns. "This way folks will have a few extra meals in the freezer in case of a shelter-in-place order."
A critical mission
Andover Department of Elder Services typically asks for a $3 donation for each meal, officials said. However, it is not asking for any individual donation for the extra meal.
It all adds up to a lot of meals to deliver and a hefty responsibility on the drivers.
"The bare bones of the program is to make sure a hot meal gets through the doorway, and that could happen in two minutes," said Shawna McCloskey, transportation and Meals on Wheels coordinator, who got her start with the program as a driver in 2001.
"But it's the care and attention and energy and interest and intuition of the drivers that make the mission work," said McCloskey, who is also a licensed social worker.
The mission is threefold — meal delivery, socialization and a wellness check. Johanna Walsh, who has been delivering meals for seven years, knows the seniors on her route very well.
"I know if they don't say or do something that they might be sad or even sick," said Walsh. "We are often the only person that they see in a day, and they look forward to talking."
Paul Kang, 81, who is quick with a laugh, has been receiving meals through the program for seven years. Kang considers himself a talker.
"I love the meal, but I really love the conversations," he said with a warm smile. "I'm very lonely. I live alone, so I really love talking to the drivers."
The Meals on Wheels program is in desperate need of volunteer drivers, leaders of the program said. As an added incentive, Andover residents 60 and older can enter the Senior Citizens Rebate in Property Taxes program. Anyone who volunteers a minimum of 91 1/2 hours within a fiscal year will receive an abatement of $1,100 on their property taxes.
"I look forward to the rebate, but I'd drive with or without it," said Larry Lane, a retiree from Andover who has been delivering meals for eight months. "I've always had a soft spot for elderly people. Having a conversation, making that connection — it's such an easy gift to give."
Call 978-623-8320 to become a Meals on Wheels volunteer, make a donation to the program, or identify an elder in need of a meal.