More people experience hunger and loneliness than you may think, even in your own backyard. Take Miss Lorraine as one example. An 89-year-old Southlake resident, Lorraine moved in with her son after her husband died a few years ago. But with her son often away, busy at work, Lorraine usually winds up spending time by herself at the house.

“Sometimes I find myself alone,” Lorraine expresses. “I really don’t cook very well. I just don’t have the energy for it anymore.”

Luckily, a hot meal and good company is only a phone call away for Lorraine. That’s because for the past 40 years, Metroport Meals On Wheels has been hand-delivering warm meals to hundreds of people across the Metroplex. Rain or shine, cold or warm, nothing stops its volunteers from caring for the people they’re committed to — not even a pandemic.

“I feel like I know them,” Lorraine says. “They’re generous, personable. They remember your first name. They really make you feel secure. We don’t get near them as much as we used to anymore, but you always feel like they’re there with food on the way.”

MEALS AND MEMORIES

In 1980, Westlake resident Kelly Bradley founded Roanoke Meals On Wheels with a group of church friends to alleviate hunger for local senior citizens. They later mentored similar operations in Keller, Argyle and Justin, uniting as Metroport Meals On Wheels in 1992. The organization has only grown since, covering 23 cities across Tarrant, Denton and Wise Counties.

While she wasn’t involved in the organization’s founding, executive director Mary King has been with the program for more than 20 years. She first volunteered as a driver delivering meals for the Visiting Nurses Association in Dallas in 1999.

“I would go out once a month,” Mary recalls. “I would drive around with my kiddos delivering meals when they were preschoolers. For me, being able to get out, see people, meet them and greet them face to face is one of the most special aspects of volunteering. It feels like I’ve always been a part of this.”

Mary says she’s always felt connected to the mission, but it grew more personal the more she committed.

“I’ve watched relatives of mine decline,” Mary says. “Since I’ve been with Metroport, I went through my mother and father-in-law’s final years with them until they died at 93 and 97. I can remember at one point my mother talking about something that was going on in her church, and I asked her, ‘Why don’t you just share how you feel?’ Her response was, ‘No one cares how an old lady feels.’ I don’t want anyone to think that’s the case ever.”

Shortly before Kelly retired in 2000, Mary heard about the chance to lead the organization and leapt at the opportunity. Once she got the job, her responsibilities dramatically increased from just driving around, delivering meals and interacting with participants. But she never forgot the reasons why she joined in the first place.

“I want to know our participants by name,” she says. “It helps me stay grounded. When you have a lot of paperwork and fundraising to do like I do, it can be real easy to lose sight of why you started doing it in the first place. It’s really important for me to stay connected. It’s personal to me. They aren’t numbers.”

INTERRUPTING THE ISOLATION

According to Mary, over 80% of food provider programs across the nation rely on federal entitlement funding to cover meal costs. But by collaborating with local food partners, Metroport is able to serve a wider base unhindered by government stipulations.

That’s helped Metroport’s growth dramatically over the years. Not only did its 390 volunteers provide 112,676 meals in 2019, but they’re on the fast track to exceeding last year’s numbers this year. Mary says Metroport Meals On Wheels has delivered more than 1,750,000 meals throughout its 40-year history.

“Our area covers everything from suburban to rural,” Mary says. “Each of our communities are totally unique. I like that variety. The communities are invested in this program and the welfare of its citizens.”

Few people know that as well as board president-elect John Thane. Having been involved with Metroport for well over a decade, John says he first heard about Metroport Meals On Wheels when he moved from Houston to Southlake in 2001. It didn’t take long for him to start driving and delivering meals as a volunteer.

“It’s just something that always tugged at my heartstrings,” John says. “There’s always been a plethora of nonprofits, charities and children support services, and I guess there always will be. But seniors are a need area that hasn’t always been addressed. I was grateful to find an organization that made them a priority.”

John quickly learned that Metroport doesn’t just cater to seniors specifically. They lend a helping hand to whoever needs it — anyone who gives them a call.

“We have people that are recovering from major illnesses and surgeries,” John says. “There could be a disability or a mobility issue involved, or they could just be alone. There are some people that will even take their meal at lunch, divide that in half and that’s their dinner too. There’s always a need everywhere, even in Southlake.”

And the need is much more than just delivering meals. Mary stated that the deliveries double as welfare check-ins for their participants as well.

“So many of our folks are isolated,” Mary states. “If it weren’t for the volunteers that show up on their doorstep every day, they might go days or weeks without a visitor. That loneliness is so dehumanizing, so dangerous. Being able to interrupt that isolation is equally as important as bringing the meals.”

ADJUSTING TO THE TIMES

When COVID-19 came to Texas in March, it flipped Metroport’s entire world upside down. There was an obvious health concern for its senior participants since eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths occurred in adults 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of this, volunteers had to wear masks, deliver meals on the doorstep and maintain a 6-foot distance from participants.

“It has been challenging in so many ways to figure out how to deliver, to do it safely and to assure our participants their safety,” Mary says. “All of a sudden, going inside and visiting wasn’t safe anymore.”

Participants’ health wasn’t the only thing that was in jeopardy. Since COVID-19 immediately impacted restaurants around the area, many of Metroport’s food partners were at risk of closing.

“Because we were working with independent restaurants, we suffered through what closure did to them with them,” Mary says. “Some of them didn’t even make it.”

But of all of the changes, the most difficult came with the lack of human interaction. Since volunteers couldn’t go into participants’ homes as often, they instead have to converse from a distance and call and follow up by phone if they want to speak more with a participant.

“Our volunteers don’t just deliver meals: They also deliver smiles, hugs and other forms of assistance,” Mary expresses. “One of the things our participants and volunteers have both told us repeatedly is how much they miss the hugs. We can’t be there with a hug, so we’re trying to send a hug through the food we deliver instead.”

At the same time, community needs have surged thanks to event cancellations and record unemployment. Before the pandemic, Mary says Metroport delivered 800 meals a month to one area. Now it’s 1,400 meals a month. Because of that, Mary says the need for donations are more important than they ever have been before.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s someone who sends a $1 bill or a five-figure donation,” Mary says. “They’re all so important and reinforce how important the whole village is in taking care of our seniors. We don’t ever want to tell someone we can’t bring a meal because you can’t pay a certain amount. That’s just not in our vocabulary. That’s not in our DNA, and I don’t ever want it to be.”

A SEASON OF GIVING

Despite the additional responsibilities resting on Metroport’s shoulders, Mary says its dedicated volunteers have helped carry the extra weight. While they haven’t received many additional volunteers to keep up with the demand, Mary says the ones they currently do have consistently risen to the occasion.

“We have a great team,” Mary expresses. “I can’t sing their praises enough. They’re very real people with very real lives, and sometimes, life takes over and derails their plans for the day. When that happens, we have a substitute driver that can step in and help share that responsibility. They’re all so dedicated and fantastic at the job they do.”

That dedication is needed for the months ahead because Mary says the holidays are the busiest time for Metroport Meals On Wheels. Not only do they deliver meals more frequently this month due to Thanksgiving but also they compile winter meal packages to help participants get through bad weather days where volunteers may not be able to drive out to their house. They also increased lunch deliveries to senior centers, started an online wish list and even partnered with the local nonprofit Don’t Forget To Feed Me to provide pet food donations for its four-legged participants as well.

And Metroport isn’t alone in its seasonal giving. Every year, Trophy Club’s Meat U Anywhere organizes a massive Thanksgiving extravaganza to provide 500-900 meals to Metroport participants, volunteers, families and first responders. And although this year’s event has been adjusted into a drive-thru event, it still makes owner Andy Sedino proud to help.

“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to donate our meals to the community, and we’ll continue to do so as long as our doors are open,” Andy says. “It enriches our soul to be able to feed their souls.”

The road ahead is long for Metroport volunteers, and the challenges that lay ahead remain uncertain. But with a strong foundation of supporters and advocates, Mary knows they will keep connecting the community through their love of food and people.

“There’s so many faces with so many special stories and unique circumstances,” she expresses. “They are always happy to see you, and they make you feel happy to be around them. Knowing what a difference we make to the people around here makes this job so fulfilling.”

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