OKLAHOMA CITY – The first time I delivered a meal to Walt, I wanted to be respectful.

I called him by his last name.

He set me straight.

“That was my dad,” he said. “Call me Walt.”

Didn’t have to tell me twice. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Walt has been a blessing in my life just like all the folks to whom I’ve delivered food as part of Meals on Wheels OKC. A few have even been a hoot; I’ve gotten everything from hand sanitizer to a flier outlining the post-tribulation, pre-wrath rapture from them. But Walt is a treasure. He has told me about playing football, doing rodeos, giving up drinking, and along the way, he has discovered I am from Kansas, work for the newspaper and cover sports.

I have connected with him the way I connected with lots of people I’ve written about over the years. You build bonds. You keep touch. Strangers become friends.

Worrying about lingering at Walt’s door to talk to him is one of the truly awful things about this pandemic. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began, I’ve worn a mask on deliveries and kept my distance, but the last thing I’d want to do is unknowingly infect Walt or anyone else.

But the deliveries must continue.

Meals on Wheels is an essential service for many seniors, and it has become even more so during this pandemic. The number of people receiving food from Meals on Wheels Oklahoma City has risen by a third in less than two months, growing from a little over 600 clients to 845. 

St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, my church home, started overseeing the city’s Meals on Wheels program in July 2019. 

“We had no idea that seven months later, we would be confronted by the coronavirus,” St. Luke’s senior pastor Bob Long said. “But because of where we’d been led, we were ready.”

The church put out the all-call for more drivers during the pandemic, and being a sports columnist in a time without sports, I added another weekly route to the one I was already doing. 

“We’ve been encouraged by the number of people who’ve already stepped up to say, ‘I want to be a part of ending hunger in Oklahoma City.’”

Phil Greenwald, executive pastor of administration, St. Luke’s Methodist Church, Oklahoma City

For me, it’s a reprieve from being at home. A change of pace. A break in the monotony. 

Which is ironic.

For the people getting meals, they were sheltering in place before the rest of us knew what that meant.

*** 

Walking up to a new address and knocking on the door for the first time feels a lot like cold calling someone for a story.

After dialing the number, those seconds before someone answers the phone are agony. A thousand worries run through my head.

Who will answer?

What will they say?

Same goes for new Meals on Wheels addresses, and these days, such stops happen all the time. People who never needed assistance before are now seeking help with a very basic need – food.

A year ago, I never imagined I’d be a small cog in the machinery filling that need.

Since the coronavirus pandemic has started, the number of clients served by Meals on Wheels OKC has surged. St. Luke’s United Methodist Church alone is sending out more than 1,200 meals a week, many prepared by Katherine Halseide, executive chef and director of catering, and Matt Stine, chef. [Photo Courtesy of Ending Hunger OKC)

Neither did St. Luke’s.

The church, among the oldest and biggest in the state, sits just north of downtown Oklahoma City, and a little over a year ago, it was approached by the Areawide Aging Agency. The nonprofit overseeing services and support for older adults in the metro wanted the church to consider overseeing Meals on Wheels Oklahoma City.

Why St. Luke’s?

The church has long been a part of Meals on Wheels, starting Saturday routes in 1984. Three decades later, more than 120 meals were being delivered by the church each week.

The Areawide Aging Agency knew St. Luke’s had a heart for feeding those in need, but the church also had the ability to do so. Led by executive chef Katherine Halsiede, the chefs at St. Luke’s prepared half a million meals for all sorts of functions in 2018. The church had the staff and the knowhow to feed lots of people. It had the purchasing capacity and the preparation space, too.

After a lot of discussion, investigation and consideration, St. Luke’s created Ending Hunger OKC, a food ministry that could oversee Meals on Wheels OKC. It would be an umbrella for food outreach of all kinds.

On April 24, 2019, the Areawide Aging Agency awarded Ending Hunger OKC a grant to coordinate mobile meals.

“There is such great need throughout Oklahoma County,” St. Luke’s executive pastor of administration Phil Greenwald said at the time, “and we’ve been encouraged by the number of people who’ve already stepped up to say, ‘I want to be a part of ending hunger in Oklahoma City.’ ”

I was one of those people.

***

Several years ago, I volunteered for one of St. Luke’s other outreach programs, Studio 222. It is an after-school arts program for low-income, high-risk kids. They paint. They sculpt. They draw. But before they can do any of that, they need a ride from school to the studio.

One afternoon every other week, I drove a church van to a middle school, loaded up six or eight kids, then took them to the studio. They would talk and laugh and largely forget I was there, which was great. 

For that hour or so, I wasn’t a sports columnist. Those kids didn’t care that I might’ve covered the Thunder the night before or that I might be going to an OU football game that weekend. The only thing they knew was that I was going to get them to a place where they were loved, a place that they loved to be.

Being a spoke in that wheel was awesome.

But as my daughter got older and added more activities, I had to stop driving for Studio 222. It was just at the wrong time of day for me. It didn’t work with my daughter’s schedule – or mine – any more. 

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman, started delivering Meals on Wheels to the south side of Oklahoma City last year. During the coronavirus pandemic, she is driving an extra route each week. (Chris Lambert/Ending Hunger OKC)

Meals on Wheels, though, seemed like it might work for me. My work day is usually flexible, and since I would deliver around noon when my daughter would be at school, I figured I could give it a try. 

I picked a route on the south side of Oklahoma City. That part of town has a piece of my heart. It has become heavily Hispanic in recent decades with lots of hard-working but hardscrabble families. I’ve gotten to know some of the kids from that area who are facing great odds but fighting like crazy to make good. 

When I started delivering meals, one of the first houses belonged to a woman on oxygen. She wasn’t able to get out of her chair, so I would crack open the screen door and put the food inside. 

Once, her dog was in the front room, and that old pup had fur going every which way. It shook and struggled to move. It never once barked. I wondered if it was blind. Or deaf. Or both.

So sad.

But at the same time, I realized something – that pooch might’ve been the only living thing the woman saw for days at a time.

The isolation of the people getting food from Meals on Wheels quickly became apparent. Once I asked Mr. Douglas, a man who lives in an apartment above a couple shops, if I needed to call him before I delivered to make sure he was going to be home. He said there was no need – he was always there.

Not being able to leave the house is actually one of the stipulations for receiving Meals on Wheels. Chris Lambert, the director of Ending Hunger OKC, said that while the standards have been relaxed a bit during the coronavirus pandemic, a traditional client has to check two major boxes.

Over 60.

Homebound.

“Being homebound means more than lacking transportation or not being able to drive,” Lambert said. “It’s that the person is physically unable to leave their home without (someone) assisting them. 

“If they can get into a friend’s car or a cab without help, there are other resources that can provide transportation to a congregate meal location.”

Jim Roberts delivers food to a Meals on Wheels OKC client before the coronavirus pandemic. Then, handshakes and even hugs were common. Now, drivers must wear masks on deliveries and are asked to keep a safe distance. [Photo courtesy of Ending Hunger OKC)

Meals on Wheels provides for people who cannot leave home on their own. Many have difficulty getting up and down from a chair. A few helped by Meals on Wheels OKC are even bound to their beds. 

“They leave the door unlocked so we can take the meal to the bedside,” Lambert said. 

Meals on Wheels America reports one in four seniors lives alone, and data indicates that a solitary lifestyle may last longer and be lonelier than ever before. People are living longer nowadays – life expectancy is at an all-time high – and because society is as mobile as it has ever been, children and grandchildren may live far away.

Nationally, 59 percent of Meals on Wheels clients live alone.

“Many of our clients have no relatives or support systems to call them or visit,” Lambert said. “The Meals on Wheels volunteer may be the only person they see and the only voice they hear for days or even weeks.”

Now, the face is masked, the voice muffled.

But Meals on Wheels are turning faster than ever.

***

Before coronavirus, the meals delivered out of St. Luke’s on a typical Friday filled two or three large insulated black and red bags.

Now, those bags number in the dozens and line several banquet tables. 

Meals on Wheels OKC has added more than 200 clients during the pandemic, and St. Luke’s alone is sending out more than 1,200 meals a week. That is partially because of the surge in clients, but it is also because several churches that were involved had to pull back.

Nearly five dozen churches in the city prepare and distribute meals under the Meals on Wheels OKC umbrella, but because many of the cooks and drivers are older volunteers, they worried about leaving their houses to cook or deliver with the coronavirus spreading. Several churches had to suspend their Meals on Wheels services.

St. Luke’s filled the void.

“When I look back and see how God has led us to this moment, you can’t help but see the hand of providence,” Long, the senior pastor, said. “Who would have even dreamed we’d be ready in such a moment as this?”

No senior has gone without a meal.

Would that have happened before Ending Hunger OKC was born and St. Luke’s assumed oversight of Meals on Wheels OKC?

Maybe, but the infrastructure was invaluable. 

Because Meals on Wheels clients are in the age range most affected by the coronavirus, drivers must take precautions as Emily Harrelson did on a recent delivery. But masks and gloves don’t prohibit conversations, laughs or smiles. (Photo courtesy of Ending Hunger OKC)

So was St. Luke’s reach. It led to several sizable gifts from the corporate community. The Richison Family Foundation, established by Paycom founder Chad Richison, donated $150,000. OGE Energy Corp., the parent company of OG&E, gave $250,000 to partner with local restaurants to provide meals and keep staff employed. Bank of Oklahoma gave $50,000.

The funds have allowed Ending Hunger OKC to fill the Mobile Market truck with fresh produce and family-style meals. In parking lots around the city, families have been able to walk up and get oranges and bananas, pizza and pasta.

It’s great stuff.

But so are those hot-meal deliveries through Meals on Wheels. There are lots of new faces. During a furlough week, I delivered four days and three of those days were new routes for me, but I still get to see some of my people. People on the southside. People who I delivered to since I started driving.

Mr. Douglas. Mrs. Gardner. Walt.

I always ask how they are doing, but I don’t want to stay too long or get too close. I have positioned myself behind many screen doors these past few weeks in an effort to minimize contact.

Walt, unfortunately, has no screen door, so my stays at his apartment have become shorter during the pandemic. I hope he understands why.

The other day, as I turned to go, he thanked me like always. Then as I took a few steps toward my car, he hollered at me.

“Love you!”

What could I say?

Love you, too.

Jenni Carlson is a sports columnist for The Oklahoman. Contact her at jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Follow her on Twitter at JenniCarlson_OK

The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here.


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