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October 07. 2012 9:07PM

Gas prices don't matter to NH Meals on Wheels volunteers


Meals on Wheels volunteer Mike Arrison loads his trunk with an insulated cooler at St. Joseph Community Services in Manchester. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)


Rod Leavell delivers a meal as Joyce Bartley greets him in her driveway. Leavell delivers for the St. Joseph Community Services Meals on Wheels program in Manchester. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)


Frank Doxey heads out to make a Meals on Wheels delivery. There are 62 routes staffed by more than 100 drivers in Hillsborough County. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — Anyone who drives on a daily basis knows prices at the gasoline pump are taking bigger bites out of budgets — even volunteers going the extra mile to help others.

Local drivers participating in the St. Joseph Community Services Meals on Wheels delivery service say what they get out of volunteering is far more valuable than the gas they put into it — paid for out of their own pockets.

“I haven't worried about the gas prices yet,” said Rod Leavell, who has volunteered as a driver the last 10 years. “I enjoy it. The people you deliver to, you develop relationships with them.”

While the Hillsborough County Meals on Wheels program may not be losing drivers, it has cut back a day on deliveries. Starting last week, St. Joseph Community Services reduced its Meals on Wheels service delivery to four days a week. Clients continue to receive the same number of meals (a frozen meal is sent out the day before the suspended delivery day), but deliveries are no longer made on Wednesdays.

Richard Plamondon, chairman of the board of directors at St. Joseph Community Services, said: “These changes are made with great reluctance. Our board of directors spent a considerable amount of time discussing and evaluating a number of different scenarios, and ultimately, chose to reduce the number of delivery days, as we believe this option will have the least impact on our clients.”

Wednesday deliveries could be reinstated in future months, he said.

“We will continue to review our status with the goal of reinstating full service when funding permits,” Brady said.

Feeling the pinch

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average American household spends $3,348 of its after-tax income on gasoline and diesel. Each 10-cent rise in prices translates into an additional $93.25 more spent on gas and diesel per year, per household.

Organizations like the Meals On Wheels Association of America that rely on volunteers are feeling the pinch, too. The organization's headquarters in Alexandria, Va., announced it may scale back its coverage area soon. According to a national survey conducted by Meals On Wheels Association of America, many such programs nationwide are struggling due to the increase in the price of gas. Nearly 80 percent of Meals On Wheels programs that rely on volunteers to deliver food are seeing a reduction in ranks, which the organization attributes to the cost of gasoline.

But the director of the local Meals on Wheels program says that is not the case in the Queen City.

“We haven't had trouble keeping drivers due to gas prices,” said Meghan Brady, president of St. Joseph Community Services, though she added, “I think we've had trouble recruiting new ones.”

Rockingham County

Debbie Perou, executive director of the Rockingham Meals on Wheels program (which serves 37 cities and towns), said her organization pays her drivers a small amount of money to deliver meals, which has helped retain them.

“It's not much, but it's something,” said Perou. “It was hard on people earlier in the year when the prices were up and down. No one knew what was coming next. We are all in such a tough economy right now, it seems like we're all just waiting for something good to happen. We're waiting for things to change.”

Hillsborough County

Brady said that St. Joseph Community Services provides an average of 1,688 hot and nutritious meals a day to elderly and home-bound disabled residents throughout Hillsborough County. Last year, the program served 422,006 meals and 3,506 individuals. Since 1977, the program has served more than 10.9 million meals.

According to Brady, the Meals on Wheels program currently operates 62 routes over four delivery days throughout Hillsborough County, staffed by a stable of more than 100 volunteer drivers.

“Not everyone drives a route every day, or even every week,” said Brady. “Some may deliver one day a week, some may drive only every other week.”

Brady said the drivers enjoy the time they spend with delivery recipients along their routes.

“If you ask them, I think they'll tell you it means a lot to them,” said Brady. “And it means a lot to the clients.”

“I don't have too far to go,” said Frank Doxey, a driver who delivers on Thursdays around the Manchester area. “The price of gas isn't something I think about. I'm not filling up, saying, 'This is too much, I've got to stop.' I'm not sure what the price would have to get to for me to be there, but I'm not there yet.”

“For some of these people, I might be the only visitor they have all day,” said Leavell. “Sometimes they want to talk and you can tell they haven't talked to someone for a while and want to tell a story, but you have to be nice about it and move along. The longer you are there, the longer it is until the next person gets their meal.”

For more information on St. Joseph Community Services' Meals on Wheels program, visit www.mealsonwheelsnh.org or call 603-424-9967.

pfeely@unionleader.com


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