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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Gaston Meals On Wheels Adapts To Meet Needs For Food And Connection

Amanda Dawson (left) and Maren Brown make a Meals on Wheels delivery.

For elderly shut-ins across the country, a daily knock on the door means they’ve not only got a hot meal, but a check-in with the outside world.

Meals on Wheels programs have served as a connection for people isolated by age or disability since long before people started social distancing and having meals routinely delivered to their homes to protect against the coronavirus.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, can be especially deadly to the old and frail – the very people who make up most Meals on Wheels clients.

And Selina Pate, director of Gaston County’s Meals on Wheels, says some of her regular drivers have dropped out  "because we have some older volunteers who certainly need to seclude themselves and not be out."

The demand for home deliveries is up, because people who used to come to central locations for meals can’t do that now that group gatherings are banned for safety.

So Meals on Wheels is evolving. Gaston County’s ACCESS buses have eliminated most of their regular trips to avoid exposing anyone to COVID-19. So now they’re delivering five days worth of frozen meals to people who used to come in for meals.

Staff from the senior centers are pitching in to deliver daily hot meals to the homebound. And Pate says new volunteers are signing up -- "people who are working remotely from home, college students who are just doing online studies now who are calling us saying, ‘Hey, what can I do to help?’ "

Volunteers Bob and Ellen Cinq-Mars don disposable gloves for their first Meals on Wheels run since the coronavirus pandemic reached Gaston County.

And not every senior volunteer is staying home. Bob and Ellen Cinq-Mars have been making monthly deliveries for almost 20 years, and they showed up last week despite the coronavirus. He’s 79 and she’s 74.

"It’s gotten to be a mission. Once a month," says Bob Cinq-Mars, who adds that his wife makes sure he takes precautions against the coronavirus.

"You know, we just feel like we’re healthy and we’re able to get out," says Ellen Cinq-Mars, "and there’s so many people that we come in contact with in this program that are not able to get out and are in much worse shape than we are."

The drivers get disposable gloves and hand sanitizer. Meals are put into plastic bags that can be handed over with little contact. Some clients put out a sign asking that meals be dropped on the porch, but drivers are instructed to make sure they’ve made some kind of contact, even by phone. 

"That may be the only person they see that day, that they have human contact with and have communication," Pate says. "And so we really want to emphasize the importance of being available to them."

One client taped a sign to the door asking that drivers leave her meal in a bag she hung from the door.

When adult nutrition specialists Amanda Dawson and Maren Brown drove a west Gastonia route late last week, they had to be persistent on their first stop. 

"Sometimes we have to wait a little bit longer, just because they walk slow, they have walkers, they might be hard of hearing," Dawson explained as they waited. Just as she started to call, the client came to the door. 

At another house, they asked about a man who had a brace on his hand. At still another, they chatted with  Gladys Bilbrey.

"It’s a godsend to people that’s old – and I’m 92, I’ll be 93 my birthday – and I don’t do much cooking, you know," Bilbrey said.

Dawson reminded Bilbrey that when they brought her a meal in early April of last year it was snowing.

"It was an interesting day," Dawson said. "And it’s still an interesting time now."

Pate says as of Monday, new volunteers are continuing to step up. And with the CDC’s request for everyone to wear some kind of mask, she expects to be issuing those soon.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.