As soon as Wakelin’s minivan pulls off South Clack Road, Chico runs over to greet him with a lick. Wakelin pets Chico and then pulls out a piping hot meal for Brown, prepared only hours before at the Payson Senior Center.
Brown is one of 137 Rim Country residents who receive a meal every day, free, from the center because they are no longer able to cook for themselves because of age, illness or a disability.
Since Brown had a triple bypass on Christmas Eve, she explained she could not take care of herself like she used to, including cooking meals. Brown relies on the daily serving of food from Meals on Wheels to carry her through.
“It has been a hard time,” she said. “I never got them before, but they sure are a blessing.”
As much as Brown enjoys the meals, it is evident that Chico is just as grateful. Brown said she often shares with Chico because “he is a veggie eater.”
Several units over from Brown, Wakelin delivers another dish of food to Shelia Wootton.
Wootton said she thoroughly enjoys the meals because she also does not do much cooking.
“The spaghetti was so delicious,” Wootton tells Wakelin; even her dog Precious enjoyed it.
Wakelin leaves Wootton with a smile on his face. He said it is impossible not to get “a case of the feel goods” doing this work.
Elizabeth “Betty” Mowery is the last resident at Pineview Manor to get a meal.
For the last three years, Mowery explained, every time she receives a meal, she eats it by 10:30 a.m. because they are so yummy.
Outside of split pea soup, Mowery said she does not cook because she “burns everything.”
“I would go broke buying pots,” she jokes.
As we leave, Mowery thanks Wakelin with a huge smile on her face.
“You guys are wonderful,” she says.
These three women are just a handful of residents Wakelin sees every day on his route through town.
“Sometimes this is the only meal they get,” he said.
While some residents live in nice homes and apartments, others live in squalor. Wakelin said he had no idea the amount of poverty in town until he started delivering.
“You would be shocked at some of the homes,” he said.
“Some people lay in bed all day” because they cannot move and as a result, their home falls in disrepair.
“It is pretty eye-opening,” he said.
For those who do not receive help from family or friends, it is even more important that someone check on them on a daily basis. Wakelin said creating friendships and trust with residents is both crucial and rewarding.
“I do this to give back to the community,” he said. “I believe in paying it forward.”
Fellow driver Bob Miller said after delivering meals for the last three years he is extremely attached to residents.
Joanne Conlin, the Senior Center’s director, said working with the program is extremely gratifying for all those involved including the cooks, drivers, runners and administrative staff.
“It is a very rewarding experience to be able to do this for people,” she said. “Sometimes we are the only people they see in a day.”
Recently, the Senior Center expanded the Meals on Wheels program to Star Valley where at least a dozen residents need the service. With limited funding, Conlin cannot afford to expand the program in the area beyond 14 residents.
Conlin hopes to find extra funding either through the town or donations to increase the program in Star Valley to all those who qualify.
“For whatever reason, they become homebound and need us,” she said.
Currently, the $205,000 annual program is funded through federal, state, town of Payson funds, donations and revenue from the thrift store. The town contributes roughly 26 percent of funding while the federal and state government provides 22 percent and grants another 20 percent.
The Senior Center is always concerned federal and state funding could drop, especially in the current economic crisis.
“We are managing currently,” she said. “We are not in the hole, but we are also not making any money.”
New cook Tim Hilgendorf is a blessing to the center, Conlin said, because he has lowered costs significantly. It now costs around $6.25 to prep and deliver one meal.
From ordering more efficiently to baking all deserts and breads in house, “he has done a phenomenal job of cost saving.”
Hilgendorf is just one of the staffers that keeps the program running smoothly. Four minimum wage paid drivers and volunteer runners deliver the food on a daily basis.
“They are the most wonderful group of people,” Conlin said. “They are so conscientious.”
For more information on the program, to donate or volunteer, call (928) 474-4876.