Sep. 27—LEWISTON — Frank Danforth gets a little choked up talking about his Meals on Wheels clients. Some weeks, he may be the only person the client sees.
The volunteer driver for the SeniorsPlus program is part of an important safety net for the aging population that has become more difficult in the past year because of the pandemic. As the demand grew for meal deliveries, SeniorsPlus lost volunteers.
Danforth spends his Tuesday and Thursday mornings delivering to between 25 and 30 households in Lewiston. He said some clients are "in dire need" of the service.
"I really like helping people, and it's a very rewarding experience for me," he said last week.
Danforth, 68, has been volunteering for the past four years following his retirement from the U.S. Postal Service. He said he found SeniorsPlus due to its mission to enrich the lives of older people
"I guess the delivery thing is in my blood, I don't know," he said.
Betsy Sawyer-Manter, president and CEO of SeniorsPlus, said Meals on Wheels is dependent on having a "strong contingent of volunteers," particularly delivery drivers.
"These volunteers do so much more than just deliver a meal, they are also part of the three-legged stool that Meals on Wheels is known for," she said.
The drivers deliver meals that make up one-third of an adult's nutritional daily needs, they are a wellness check to insure the client is OK and they are a friendly visitor, she said.
Danforth said he establishes relationships with most clients, and sometimes can help them take care of other needs. He recently secured a new walker to replace a broken one. The client couldn't get around without one, Danforth said.
Another time, a client didn't own a proper winter coat, so Danforth acquired a voucher to a local Goodwill store.
"So many of our recipients are very socially isolated and often the volunteer driver is their only contact for days on end," Sawyer-Manter said. "We have had several volunteers discover a (Meals on Wheels) recipient who has fallen and needed emergency care."
"I'm pretty convinced that, for some of them, I'm one of the only people they're going to see all week," Danforth said, adding that he makes sure to take the time for some conversation. "It is tough sometimes. You want to help these people as much as you can."
Danforth lives in Auburn, but is from Gilford. Prior to working for the U.S. Postal Service for 24 years, he worked for Sherwin-Williams.
SeniorsPlus, which has been the designated Area Agency on Aging since 1972, serves Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties by offering educational programs, counseling and nutrition outreach, including Meals on Wheels. The meals are made in the SeniorsPlus kitchen in Lewiston.
According to Sarah Cecil, marketing and development manager at SeniorsPlus, the number of meals delivered by SeniorsPlus almost doubled in 2020 as the number of older people confined to their homes and adults with disabilities increased.
In 2020, SeniorsPlus delivered 205,000 meals to 2,000 homebound people in the tri-county area. In April 2020 alone, SeniorsPlus produced 1,800 meals as compared to 800 in April 2019.
During that time, the organization lost some drivers and is trying to get the word out.
Sawyer-Manter said the organization has "taken a huge hit on our volunteer corps" during the pandemic and is in need of volunteers for each of the three counties SeniorsPlus serves.
Danforth said for people who are retired, it's a rewarding experience, and can be done even if someone has just an hour.
According to SeniorsPlus, volunteers are especially needed to deliver meals to clients in Oxford and Franklin counties. Days and times depend on the specific route, but routes are typically Monday through Thursday from 9 to 11 a.m.