On The United Way:
Not many people know it, but the German blitzkrieg bombing
of London during the Second World War created a lasting legacy
that touches the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every
In 1939, when the German Luftwaffe had destroyed hundreds of British buildings and left thousands homeless, a group of concerned women conceived of the idea of preparing meals in community kitchens and delivering them through a network of volunteers. The women eventually became known as the Women's Royal Volunteer Service. They called their effort Meals on Wheels.
More than a half century later, the concept has spread to communities across the United States. In Baltimore, the Meals on Wheels program started with 10 clients on one route in 1960. Today, Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland delivers two meals a day, five days a week, to about 1,500 clients in the Baltimore region, according to development director Faye Carey.
"We utilize about 3,000 volunteers who spend one or more days a month delivering food," Carey said. Each client receives one hot and one cold meal delivered midday between 11 and 1:30, Monday through Friday. "We find our clients tend to have their own support network on the weekends when friends and family are available," Carey said. In some special cases, the agency is able to arrange weekend deliveries as well.
The delivery system itself is an organizational wonder. All meals are prepared at the organization's new commissary, created four years ago in the shell of a former supermarket in the Highlandtown section of the city. From there, a fleet of vans delivers the meals--some refrigerated, some piping hot--to 17 delivery sites throughout central Maryland.
Volunteers use hotboxes that plug into their car's cigarette lighter to keep meals warm as they make their deliveries. They work in teams--a driver and a food deliverer--to avoid parking problems. Although busy routes mean that volunteers must be brief in their daily visits, they are for some clients the only human contact they will have all week.
"About 90 percent of our clients are the elderly homebound," Carey said. "Some are younger handicapped individuals. All are unable to shop or cook for themselves and so rely on us to a great extent. Many would not be able to live independent lives were it not for the service we provide."
Meals on Wheels clients are referred to the program from a number of sources, including hospital discharge plans, doctors, social workers and friends. Clients are asked to pay for their meals on a sliding scale. Many will use the service only for a certain period of time, as they convalesce from an accident or major surgery.
"Some of our clients are financially independent and can pay the full cost of the meals, especially if they are only going to be needing our services for a limited time," Carey said. "Others may be able to pay part of, but not the full cost of preparing and delivering the meals."
In order to help subsidize the cost of meals to those unable to pay the full amount, Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland relies upon a number of outside funding sources. One of those is the United Way.
"The United Way funding is that extra money that helps fill in the budget to make sure we can do our job," Carey said. "Some of our clients can pay the full cost of the service, but some have no resources at all. The United Way makes it possible for us to make Meals on Wheels available to many who would not otherwise be able to afford it."
Each year, the number of elderly in the Baltimore region increases, and, like many services, Meals on Wheels finds its resources stretched just a little bit thinner.
"We've always had a policy of not turning anyone away who needs our help," Carey said. "We do get some government funding through grants and other sources, but that has become increasingly endangered in recent years. The United Way is a critical component that enables us to ensure no one who needs a meal is turned away."
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