Alexandria Meals on Wheels volunteer encourages others to join
The leaders of the program have talked about creating another route, which would make shorter routes for all the drivers.
ALEXANDRIA — Donna Gohman thoroughly enjoys delivering food to seniors in their homes, and she bets you would too.
“It’s very fulfilling," said Gohman, who has been volunteering for the Meals on Wheels program for six years. "It means a lot to the community."
Gohman is one of about 30 volunteer drivers for the program in Douglas County. Some of those are substitute drivers, some drive seasonally, and some drive year-round.
Gohman is one of the year-round drivers, every Monday, and she fills in on other days too. Her Monday route can get to be a lot, sometimes, and she thinks that if there were more drivers, the program could add another route, which would make her route more manageable.
Each Monday, she gets to the Alexandria Senior Center at about 9:15 a.m. She loads meals into her husband's 4-wheel drive truck, which he drives. Their 71-mile route takes them along Lake Latoka, close to Garfield, and over to Carlos. Along the way, she delivers meals, often placing them into coolers left outside. They get back to the senior center at about 1:30 p.m.
“Holey moley, it’s quite a route,” she said.
Meals on Wheels in Alexandria, as well as the nine-county area in west-central Minnesota, is run by Nutrition Services, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides senior meals through a contract with the Land of the Dancing Sky - West Central Area Agency on Aging, with funding from the Federal Older Americans Act through the Minnesota Board on Aging.
Janet Nevalainen, who runs the program, said they have talked about creating another route, which would make shorter routes for all the drivers. To do that, though, she would need to recruit five more drivers, one for each day of the week. And that's tough to do, considering that she is trying to recruit a permanent driver for a Thursday route.
Right now, there are four routes, including Ecumen Bethel Manor, which is its own route. Recently, she said, Meals on Wheels has exploded in popularity at Grand Arbor, going from about two customers to about 20.
"About six months ago, Grand Arbor blew up on us," she said. "Grand Arbor could almost be its own route.”
The number of meals served each year has come down from its high during COVID, but is still higher than its pre-COVID numbers:
- 2018 — 25,547
- 2019 — 26,885
- 2020 — 29,295
- 2021 — 28,695
- 2022 — 27,315
Drivers deliver hot meals during the week, and include frozen meals for weekends and holidays upon request. They keep an eye on the weather. If school closes for bad weather, the meals don't go out either. Meals cost $4.
"Drivers are solid, faithful and loyal," Nevalainen said. "We can’t thank them enough for providing this service. The routes have grown, and some routes are 45 meals or more."
There have been times when Nevalainen or an assistant have had to run a few meals to their destinations, which she said can't become a pattern. “You can’t manage the kitchen and be on the road,” she said.
Recipients must be at least 60 years old to receive the meals. The meals include a main course, bread, fruit, milk and dessert.
Gohman said her mother used to drive for Meals on Wheels in St. Cloud. She went with her a few times and thought she'd like to do it too, someday. Once her grandchildren were old enough for school, she signed up.
On days she can't drive, Gohman said, the program is very good about finding substitute drivers to fill in, so that helps.
Gohman said that while she doesn't get to visit with all the seniors on her route, she treasures their interactions.
“They are so grateful," she said. "When I do chat with people, they say, 'Thank you,' or 'God bless you.'”
Three ladies on her route take care of their husbands round the clock, unable to leave their homes, she said. But the program helps them get two hot meals a day. One man was visiting his wife in the nursing home all the time; Gohman would leave his meal in his cooler and he'd eat it for supper. She gets Christmas cards. One lady gave her $5 for gas. Another lady left her foil-wrapped chocolate Easter eggs with a thank-you note.
“There are some people very dependent on getting that meal seven days a week,” she said.