VNA of Northwest Indiana’s Meals on Wheels offers volunteers and clients community and connection

VNA of Northwest Indiana’s Meals on Wheels offers volunteers and clients community and connection

The average route a Meals on Wheels volunteer drives when delivering hot, fresh meals to clients around Porter County takes about an hour, beginning at Pines Village Retirement Communities, Inc. in Valparaiso and stopping at anywhere between a couple of houses to close to a dozen. But in that small chunk of time in their day, volunteers play a vital role in continuing the VNA of Northwest Indiana Meals on Wheels’ mission: connecting everyone through community, kindness, and service. 

“Our volunteers make all this happen,” said Julie Kissinger, Director of Life Services at VNA of NWI. “Without our volunteers, we wouldn’t have a program.” 

Meals on Wheels has a team of 190 volunteers serving 225 clients throughout Porter County. At an almost one-to-one ratio, volunteers run 22 routes a day, delivering up to two nutritious meals made to dietary restrictions for elderly and disabled clients who may not have the opportunity to leave their home due to ability, illness, or access, ensuring their independence and healthy wellbeing. 

But at its core, the VNA Meals on Wheels is about connection. For many seniors and disabled homebound folks, a volunteer bringing their meal directly to their door may be the only person they see or talk to all day, an issue referred to as social isolation. According to a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, social isolation plagues nearly one-fourth of adults ages 65 and older and can have long-term effects on a person’s health. 

“For a lot of our clients, we are the only people they see that day. They live alone, or don’t get to get out—especially during COVID-19—which has impacted their isolation even more, or they don’t have access to transportation,” Kissinger said. “We have many elderly clients, along with young people, who are in situations out of their control. We serve anyone in our community who is in need of this service.” 

“For many people, this is the reason they get out of bed and get ready for the day. It’s about the people, it’s about the connection we make with people that everyone needs in life. In the end, we want to make sure that no one in our community is forgotten about.” 

In order to respond to the always growing demand for the service, especially due to COVID-19, Meals on Wheels is always looking for new volunteers to start a route. While you must be 18 years old or older to volunteer, Kissinger stressed the importance of having a drive for service and kindness for everyone in the community. 

“We look for someone who has a servant’s heart and is willing to take the time to recognize that not everyone has it as easy as the next person,” Kissinger said. “You may be able to jump in the car and go pick something up from the grocery store for dinner, but someone else may not have that ability. So, we look for volunteers who understand that and want to help.” 

Meals on Wheels recently found such a volunteer in Kathy Page, who began volunteering with the organization back in November. Page moved to Northwest Indiana four years ago and since then has volunteered with various groups like Housing Opportunities, Inc. and has been involved with her local church. But due to COVID-19, many of her volunteer opportunities were put on pause, so she turned to her friend, Phyllis—a longtime Meals on Wheels volunteer—for new opportunities. 

“I started back in November when Phyllis told me there was a need for volunteers,” Page said. “I had been a little hesitant because of COVID-19, but it was very safe, and I felt comfortable doing it. I rode with Phyllis a few times on her route before, until I recently graduated to my own route.” 

For the past month, Page has had the same route that takes her out to Hobart in the late mornings to four houses where she serves five people. She begins her route at Pines Village, located near the Valparaiso YMCA, to pick up that day’s meals. Pines Village has been preparing all of Meals on Wheels’ meals for years, a commitment Kissinger describes as an incredible act of service for the community. 

“Pines Village will prepare a hot tray, which will always have a starch, vegetable, protein, milk, wheat bread, margarine, and a few sides items like jello, cookies, vegetables, or fresh fruits,” Kissinger said. 

When Page arrives to Pines Village, she is greeted by Meals on Wheels staff, who put the food in her trunk and then take her temperature, a safety precaution because of the pandemic. 

“I have a little notebook with me each time that tells me who is getting meals that day, which meals they’re getting, and the directions to their homes,” Page said. 

When Page is making the trip from Valparaiso to Hobart, she usually listens to the radio and makes sure she is paying close attention to the roads. After only living in the area of a few years, she is still learning her way around the Region and has enjoyed the chance to explore. 

When arriving at a client’s home, Page would usually spend some time with the client and talk with them before heading out on her next delivery. But due to COVID-19, the opportunity to spend time with clients chatting or helping them get situated isn’t the same. Now, an insulated bag is waiting outside the door for Page to put the food in. Before leaving, she always knocks on the door to let the client know she’s there, and many times she has found the client waiting for her by the door to greet her with a smile on their face, letting her know just how glad they are to see her. 

“Since I’ve had the same route, it’s been really nice getting to see the same people,” Page said. “It’s good to see they’re doing well and good to get to know them.” 

“One day, there were two people who didn’t answer their door. After having the same route for so long, I knew that was unusual. We are told to call in if someone doesn’t answer their door, so I did and someone was able to contact them,” Page said. “At one of the houses, as I was pulling away, I saw her standing at her window waving and smiling as I drove away.” 

The biggest impact the past few months have had on Page has been seeing how important these everyday interactions are for her clients. 

“They are so grateful and happy to see you every time,” she said. 

For those looking to volunteer for Meals on Wheels, the organization is always accepting new volunteers. Whether you’re able to volunteer every day, every couple of days, or even once a month, your time and energy are greatly valued by Meals on Wheels staff as they work to meet these needs in the community. 

It’s also a great chance for businesses to encourage volunteerism within their workforce. Kissinger has seen a rise in team bonding trips delivering meals in Porter County. Even families and spouses have enjoyed the time spent together as they learn more about how they can help the community. 

“We have one volunteer who brings her two daughters along on her routes,” Kissinger said. “It’s a great way to get out and enjoy time together as you’re serving the community.” 

If you’re interested in volunteering for VNA Meals on Wheels, call 219-462-5195 or email to get started.