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Delivering Food for Body and Spirit

Fire department volunteers donate days off.

Firefighters are noted for rescuing people from all types of life threatening situations — infernos, raging flood waters, cave-ins, car crashes. They also come to the aid of those in need of rescue from life's downturns and age-related circumstances.

Starting in July, the latter role took on new significance when members of the Black Fire Service Professionals of Alexandria volunteered their members' services to deliver "Meals on Wheels" two days a month. The program is under the joint sponsorship of Senior Services of Alexandria and the City.

"This fits right into our mandate to increase bonds between the community and the fire department," Captain John Morehead, president, BFSP of Alexandria, said. "The other part of the mandate is to increase hiring and fair treatment of minorities within the fire department."

Presently, the local organization, a chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, has approximately 36 members. It started with 13 members in 1988, Morehead said.

NEARLY 20 CURRENT members have volunteered to donate two of their days off each month, on a rotating basis, to Alexandria's Meals on Wheels program. "Those volunteering range in rank from Battalion Chief to firefighter," Morehead said.

Alexandria's Meals on Wheels Program delivers over 90 meals a day to homebound individuals throughout the City, according to Shirley McKnight, volunteer coordinator, Senior Services of Alexandria. "This amounts to more than 43,000 meals per year," she said.

"Each route every day averages between 12 and 14 clients. And, some of our volunteers are older than our clients," she said. Approximately 65 percent of the meals are subsidized by the City. "The rest are self-paying clients," McKnight said.

Logistics, including receiving and distributing the meals, coordinating volunteer drivers, and overseeing the program's daily

operations, are handled by Grace Sills, Meals on Wheels director of operations, and her assistant Janet Deatherage. Sills has been doing this for 15 years on a purely voluntary basis.

LAST WEDNESDAY MORNING Battalion Chief Chet Helms, Captain Thurston McClain, Captain James LeCruise, and Captain Luis Santano reported for duty at Sills' distribution point, Temple Beth El, 3830 Seminary Road.

Helms and McClain loaded 15 meals into Helm's SUV to make deliveries from the Seminary Hills area to the heart of Old Town. "We are taking turns within the organization doing this on the second Monday and Wednesday of each month," Helms said.

One of their first stops was the home of Robert McDonald. There McClain delivered two meals for McDonald and his wife. McDonald greeted him with, "I'm sure glad to see you."

Later in their rounds they came to the home of 80-year-old Rosetta Allen in the Del Ray area. A professional nurse, she worked for a hospice for 12 years after retiring from a 32-year professional nursing career. "I have a permanent disability now and had to fully retire in 2002," Allen said.

"I've been getting Meals on Wheels for about 11 months. I'm very happy with the service," she said as McClain gave her that day's delivery.

It took Helms and McClain less than two hours to cover their assigned route. Recipients included everyone from homebound elderly clients, such as Allen, to those that are only temporarily in that status due to recent medical problems.

Meals are delivered five days a week, Monday through Friday, McKnight says. "Our paying clients are billed monthly at a rate depending on the length of service. The fees are $6 per day, $30 per week and $120 per month," she said.

McClain and Helms seemed to get almost as much from the experience as the clients. At each stop McClain not only delivered meals but some much-welcomed good cheer as well. "On Monday my daughter came along. She liked it so much she wants to do it again," Helms said.

FOOD IS PREPARED in the Arlington jail and brought to the distribution site in large red and blue coolers, designating hot and cold meals, by Aramark, according to McKnight. All delivers are made between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Sills supplies each driver with a clipboard that lists names and addresses of clients as well as directions from each destination to the next. "They also give specific details about each delivery, like where to leave it, whether to knock on the door or not, if there is a caregiver at the address. Things like that," McClain said.

Deliveries are organized into seven routes. Each route requires one driver and one runner. In the case of Helms and McClain, Helms drove while McClain did the running — and greeting, and public relations.

At one location, due to building security, their instructions were to pull into the parking lot and blow the horn. When they did so, a caregiver came to a ground level window and opened it. McClain passed the meals to her, which she, in turn, delivered to recipients on upper floors.

Deliveries are not made when Alexandria schools are closed due to ice and snow or "when we feel conditions are unsafe for our volunteers," McKnight said. There are no deliveries on designated holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Fourth of July.

"Every client is urged to have non-perishable food on hand for the weekends, holidays and emergencies" she said. "This can be canned foods, cereals, lunch meats, items like that. They are also urged to have a non-electric can opener available in case of power failures."

As noted in their literature, Meals on Wheels "enables many aged and infirm people to maintain their independence, avoid early or unnecessary institutionalization, and age with dignity in their own homes and community."

In addition to supplying food for the body, the program also supplies sustenance for the spirit. "Meals on Wheels is often the only contact many homebound elderly have with another human being each day. In some instances this has been a life saving relationship," their literature states.