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Wednesday, 08 January 2014 14:44

Course steady for Jackson Meals on Wheels

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Jackson County’s new volunteer policy, enacted in November, is taking a bite out of the Meals on Wheels volunteer force. 

 

The policy, intended to vet anyone volunteering in any capacity through a county department or program, upset two people enough to drive them to resign. A married couple who has volunteered with Meals on Wheels for more than 20 years will leave their posts after being offended by the new policy requiring background checks. 

“I think the interpretation is they are being treated the same as a county employee, and that wasn’t their intent when they started the program,” said Karen Davis, Jackson County nutrition program coordinator. 

The new policy requires anybody who volunteers with a county-run program such as Meals on Wheels to fill out an application that includes a background check. While the new policy has elicited grumbling — and, in the case of Meals on Wheels, resignations — from some long-time volunteers, it’s a needed protection for the county’s most vulnerable citizens, according to county administrators, including Jackson County Department of Aging Director Eddie Wells and Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.

Volunteers who deliver Meals on Wheels go into the homes of the elderly, and may be that person’s only human contact all week.

“They put a lot of faith and a lot of trust in that person,” Wooten said. “We just want to make sure that the person we send into that home has nothing to cause us alarm.”

So far, the background checks have unveiled no unsavory pasts, and the human resource department holds the results confidentially as personnel records, Wooten said. 

But while the resignation of two stalwart volunteers is upsetting — the pair was responsible for five routes between them — things are looking up for the Meals on Wheels program overall.

After an August kerfuffle during which county commissioners questioned the program’s waiting list, Meals on Wheels now has a waiting list of zero. Commissioners had allocated extra funds last winter so Meals on Wheels could expand and serve everyone on its waiting list.

But five months later, the waiting list still had 32 people on it, only down somewhat from the previous number of 43, much to commissioners’ disappointment. 

The Jackson Department of Aging Director Eddie Wells explained at the time that the challenge wasn’t just the money to provide the meals, but also a volunteer force to deliver them.

Now, the program is serving more people than one year ago, and its volunteer roll has seen a boost. 

In January 2013, the program served 78 clients using 70 volunteers. This year, it serves 89 people with 74 volunteers. New clients are now added to routes as they apply, rather than waiting weeks or months to be added.

While an increase of four drivers might not sound like a lot, that extra handful of volunteers makes all the difference, Davis said. 

“It makes a huge difference because each meal delivery route feeds around 10 clients, so one person feeds 10 people,” she said. “One volunteer does a lot of good for the community.”

Conversely, the resignation of two drivers responsible for five routes can pose a challenge, so Meals on Wheels is looking for volunteers to fill the void. Wells, however, is optimistic about the program’s future and the safeguards the new volunteer policy provides. 

“I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “Even though we trust them, we never really know until you do your due diligence and check everyone.”

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