Meals on Wheels volunteers Betts Smith, left, and Arnold Hammack, center, deliver a hot meal to Colista Bridges, right, and her niece Ann Hill Thursday in Albany.
ALBANY, Ga. -- Gladys Cato greets the strangers at her door cautiously, asking the two men who'd just knocked to identify themselves.
When Jim Moore and Ross Harrison inform the 83-year-old mother of nine they're delivering meals for Gladys and her husband of 61 years, Sherman Cato, as part of the SOWEGA Council on Aging's Meals on Wheels program, her caution evaporates and she throws her door open in welcome.
"Won't y'all come in?" she says, excitement replacing her initial caution. "Y'all will have to excuse me; I'm blind and I don't get around so good anymore."
When Moore and Harrison leave, having dropped off Thanksgiving meals of chicken, dressing and other sides, Cato tells a pair of visitors how thankful she is for the donated meals.
"I used to fix some big dinners in that kitchen," she says, smiling broadly at the memory. "I had nine children, so there was always lots of hungry folks around. But I had glaucoma and lost my sight 14 years ago, so I can't do so much in the kitchen now.
"Sherman takes me to dialysis three days a week, so these meals that are delivered mean so much to us. Now, don't think I'm complaining; I don't sit around here complaining about life. I'm thankful for what God has given me, and I thank Him every day for these folks who bring these meals."
Meals on Wheels is just one of the Council on Aging's many senior-specific programs, but it is unquestionably the most high-profile. And the most costly. Council staff and volunteers prepared and delivered more than 186,000 meals last year in the council's 14-county region, the average cost of each meal around $7. That's more than $1.3 million, which doesn't include volunteers' time or the gasoline and wear on their personal vehicles.
"We have the most wonderful volunteers in the world," Lucille Crouch, Meals on Wheels' Albany home-delivered meals coordinator, said while preparing for a recent day's delivery. "We have members of area civic clubs, churches and businesses, and just a lot of individuals who want to be involved. They're the most caring people."
Those caring people deliver meals five days a week to hundreds of seniors all over Southwest Georgia, bringing what for many is their primary source of daily nourishment. Except for those who live with an elderly caregiver, all recipients are 60 or over and are screened to assure they cannot afford or prepare their own meals.
There's a waiting list throughout the region.
"We have 15 senior centers in our 14 counties, and five of them have kitchens where we prepare the food for Meals on Wheels," Council on Aging Program Manager Jami Harper said. "Most of the meal deliveries are done by volunteers, but in some of the rural areas we use staff to make deliveries. If someone lives in a particularly isolated area, we might deliver meals that can be frozen and eaten throughout the week.
"We have more than 20 specific programs for senior citizens in our service area, but this is the most prominent. It's definitely the most hands-on."
Harper noted that the Council on Aging's Albany kitchen serves meals at homes in Worth and Dougherty counties, while its facility in Leesburg also services Arlington and Dawson. The council's Moultrie kitchen staff prepares meals for seniors in that city and in Thomas County; the Pelham facility services Grady, Mitchell and Baker counties; while the Seminole County kitchen staff cooks for seniors in Decatur, Miller and Early counties as well.
Moore, senior partner in the Moore, Clarke, Duvall & Rodgers law firm, has been involved with Meals on Wheels for the 20 years he's been a member of the Albany Rotary Club. He said those who haven't visited the homes of meal recipients should not be quick to bunch the program with questionable giveaway programs that have sprung up in the region.
"Oh, (Meals on Wheels) is absolutely legit," Moore said. "I don't have much patience with deadbeats and malingerers, and there might be some that get through the Council on Aging's screening process. But the people I've delivered to are physically afflicted or elderly and in need of the help.
"Our club members only end up making deliveries a couple of times a year each, so it's not like we invest a lot of our time in Meals on Wheels. But I don't think there's ever been a time when I've done it that I didn't come away uplifted by the attitude of the people who receive the meals."
Council on Aging Executive Director Kay Hind said the organization started the Meals on Wheels program locally in the early 1970s, utilizing a delivery company to distribute the food. Around 1975, though, the local agency started recruiting volunteers to make those deliveries to eligible seniors.
"We liked the fact that we could control the food, the amount and quality," Hind said. "We were interested in making sure the meals were nutritious.
"We had to work to get volunteers to deliver the food, but it grew gradually. We'd go and talk to one civic club or church, and they'd join us. Then we'd go talk to another one. Soon, word spread and we started getting enough people to expand the program."
Some of the food prepared for the Meals on Wheels program is donated, but most of it is purchased in bulk quantity. Izzie Sadler, the council's development director, and Harper have managed to secure some grants to help with program funding, but most of the money comes from fundraisers and donations.
"We get some state funding," Sadler said, "but we are constantly doing fundraisers to finance our programs. And, remember, this is only one program out of more than 20. But it's also a very vital program.
"I can't say enough, then, about the volunteers. Without them, we could not provide this service to the seniors in our region."
As a young boy, Harrison, the chief credit officer at Flint Community Bank, often went with his mother as she delivered meals to the hungry in Eldon, Mo. As a current member of the Albany Rotary Club, he was more than willing to join the membership rotation that delivers food for Meals on Wheels every Tuesday and Wednesday.
"For most of us, this program is a great reminder that we live in a world where not everyone is able to afford their daily needs," Harrison said. "It's a reminder of how blessed we are not to have to worry about our next meal or having a roof over our heads that doesn't leak.
"I think it also reaffirms for me that Albany is one of the most giving places I've ever lived. People just give and give and give; they do their part to try and make this truly the Good Life City."
The task, Harrison notes, is daunting. But he says volunteers can't be overwhelmed.
"You have to understand," he said, "that you're not able to fix everything. You just have to do your part. If you look at (poverty) in its entirety, yes, it's overwhelming. But it's like that old saying about how you eat an elephant ... one bite at a time. All the nonprofit organizations here, we're all just trying to nibble away.
"One of the things you learn when you get involved, though, is that you get into this thinking you're the one delivering a blessing. But you go into some of these people's homes and meet them and talk with them, and you're the one who ends up with the blessing."