Meals on Wheels faces driver shortage

November 12, 2018

Local charities are finding that providing services to some of the community’s neediest has come with a greater challenge this season.

Meals on Wheels Executive Director Margaret Burton said Meals on Wheels has faced a shortage of volunteers that she has not seen at this level in her tenure. She said the lack of drivers has had a direct impact on the amount of people the organization can serve as a whole.

“I probably have at least 16 people on the waiting list because I don’t have enough drivers,” she said.

The organization delivers food to an average of about 540 Odessa seniors and adults with disabilities every week. Burton said the meal recipients are unable to prepare their own meals and rely on these services for food security in their household.

“They really depend on that one meal a day,” Burton said. “I know I’m helping these people survive.”

Burton described the Odessa site as a “lean, mean organization” with staff numbers in the single digits, and if routes are not covered by volunteers then her staff must leave the office and fill in the gaps.

“You’ve only got a certain time to get those meals out to them by the state requirement, so if the volunteers don’t show up or we don’t have enough then all staff has to go out,” she said. “I know it’s a problem for every organization. We’re all hurting for volunteers.”

Sherry Salter, a Meals on Wheels driver and former board member, said she has had ties with Meals on Wheels since she and her husband moved to Odessa in 1994. She mostly runs routes at least twice a week in south Odessa now, but recalls before GPS was readily available having to make deliveries using a physical map to navigate to her destinations. Salter said volunteering as a driver is easier now than it has ever been. She said she can complete her current route in about 40 minutes and deliver food to 15 people.

“The nonprofit could do significantly more if they only had more drivers,” Salter said.

Burton said the bulk of volunteers since the 80s have been members of local churches and companies, but those numbers have dwindled as churches focus on their own food pantries and programming and companies are too short-handed to spare staff members.

“It’s always been an issue no matter ups or downs (in the economy),” Salter said, and “whenever it starts getting cold we’ll see a big shortage.”

Salter said that fewer people will help the organization brave the cold during the winter months.

“What makes me feel bad is that in Midland they don’t have to worry about drivers,” Salter said. “The businesses over there see to it that their own people are out driving. We don’t have that here.”

She said a man with Atmos Energy was one of the few volunteers from a local company that she saw driving for Meals on Wheels every Thursday.

“People like that you want and need because I know on that given day I have routes covered,” Burton said.

Thursday morning the Meals on Wheels office was filled with chatter and people hugging one another like they were at a family reunion.

Bobbi Cates drove four hours from Comanche with one of her daughters to help Meals on Wheels that morning. Cates is a former employee that moved from Odessa when her husband received a new job offer.

“The only reason I even quit was because we moved, otherwise I’d still be here,” Cates said. “I still love it even though I’m gone.”

Cates said she and her daughter had just finished picking up the meals prepared by Odessa Regional Medical Center, the organization’s contracted supplier, and were waiting in the lobby to ensure there were enough drivers for the day. Cates said in her family volunteering was not about finding the time, but rather making the time.

“It’s about priorities and this is mine,” she said.

Burton said it was important to take care of the community, and addressing this need would first require rebuilding their base of volunteers. Salter said that Meals on Wheels had reached the goals set by members when they first began, such as serving 500 clients and moving to a larger location.

“We’ve met all of those goals we set for ourselves back then, a huge accomplishment, but we still need those drivers,” Salter said.

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