Most of us have heard of Meals on Wheels, a service that delivers hot, healthy meals to homebound seniors. Perhaps we know a senior who gets them. But with a dragging economy and the tail effects of Hurricane Sandy–or just the rigors of life and getting older–the organization is more important than ever. Residents of Harlem have their own MOW angels from the Charles A. Walburg Multi-Service Organization, which delivers meals from 110th Street all the way to the northern tip of Manhattan, from river to river.
More than 40 years ago, Charles Walburg, the first Black OBGYN in Harlem, and the Rev. Paul Thurston noticed that a number of elderly church parishioners were not coming to church and were, in fact, sick and shut in. They started preparing meals through the church and delivering them. They got the city to help subsidize their efforts, and Harlem’s Meals on Wheels was born.
Celebrities have been quick to help out. Diva and Harlemite Jessie Norman was one of the first A-listers to lend a hand, volunteering to help deliver meals at Christmas. Director Carla Brown shared a poignant story about Norman with the AmNews.
“We went to visit a gentleman, and he had an organ which he began to play. He started to sing and Norman joined in. ‘You’re kinda good,’ he said to Norman. He had no idea who she was. She’s a diva in the best sense of the word. She volunteered three years in a row,” Brown said.
“We are the eyes and ears for the case management agencies who only see these people once a year. They get referrals from hospitals or community people and go over all their needs, whether it’s help with finances, medical assistances, etc. If they need a meal, they refer them to this organization. The entire staff really cares about the clients. Most of them live in the community. They build these relationships and become adopted family members. When you see people six days a week, you build a relationship with them,” she added.
This reporter got a chance to see the program in action up close and personal, riding shotgun with Antonio Alexander, who has been delivering meals for 21 years. It’s clear that “Tony,” as he is affectionately known, loves his job and his clients love him. He started working for MOW while also working at a law firm copying documents. The law firm downsized. “God told me not to let this job go,” he said.
There are six routes in the uptown area, and Tony has covered them all. He delivers approximately 140 meals per day.
As we went from place to place, there was Tony chatting with the doormen, running down the list of apartments to visit. There were the elder queens who answered the door happily singing his name and happier still to get that day’s meal. There were the old-school gents who were quick to trade a few clever words and share a laugh. Tony knows them all, and for many is like one of the family. Socialization is a huge part of the job.
“They do wonderful work, and Tony particularly. There would be many times he’s the only one that I get to speak to, the only person, because I’m shut in and he’s so pleasant. They do marvelous work, the meals plus the deliverer. He is just charming,” said 95-year-old Audrey Broadnax. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Tony said.
Tony told me about another client who was nearly 100. “I took a donation box to her door and she said, ‘Nothing better be in there but a mink. I have all these [doctor’s appointments] and no thrills,’” he recalled with a laugh.
Tony goes above and beyond the call of duty for his clients. He gets their mail, takes out their trash and picks up little things that they need. It is those little niceties that mean as much or more than the food he delivers.
“You know you have to think about the situation that they’re in. It could be my grandmother. I lost my grandmother when I was 10. They don’t have anybody else, and they put trust in you. One time a lady would ask me to get sugar for her. She would give me a dollar and change, and I would bring it to her the next day,” Tony said. “A lot of them remind me of my grandmother. You get attached to them. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to them. They sacrificed a lot,” he said.
We were off to our next stop.
“Sometimes you can knock and knock, and if you don’t get a response, you call the office, especially if you don’t get them in two days. It’s not the norm,” he said. “You’ve got to have patience. Some of them are on walkers. Some of them are slow. They may be in the bathroom. Sometimes if I don’t get an answer, I leave and come back.”
As we went from unit to unit, Tony had more poignant stories to share about his clients. He told me about the former schoolteacher who still made a daily trip to the nursing home to see her husband, the MTA worker. Miss Rivera joked with Tony about her upcoming dental appointment. Tony said, “She talks really fast and then she’ll close the door on you while you’re still talking,” he joked. There was Miss Jones, who complained of it being hard to get out of the chair. “You’ll get better at it, just keep doing your therapy,” Tony advised. “OK,” she said.
Next we went to visit Mr. Lane. “He’ll start taking to you,” Tony said. “Everybody’s got their own problems. Go ahead. You don’t want to hear mine. The only thing I can tell you is: Take care of your health, take care of your family and stay out of the papers.”
“You told me to stay out of the papers,” Tony joked as he introduced this reporter. “I wouldn’t be able to see you anyway,” Mr. Lane quipped.
Next we visited 93-year-old Marjorie Hankson, who just celebrated a birthday Oct. 2. “You didn’t tell me that,” Tony said. “Where’s my kiss?”
Next we headed to see Miss Mabel Ash, one of Tony’s favorites.
Her daughter shared her feelings about the program. “Meals on Wheels is a blessing. We started it last year when I was in the hospital. My mother was home alone. My sister worked, and she needed some help. She started her Meals on Wheels in June 2011 and has been getting it ever since.”
This critical help is there for the asking.
“There is still a stigma around asking for help. There are at least another 200 people who need help and are not coming forward to ask for it. Some think it’s income-based, and it’s not,” Brown said. “A person must be 60 years of age or older, have a lack of formal social support and challenges getting out, or [be] home-bound.”
The Charles A. Walburg Multi-Service Organization delivers 785 meals per day and double that on Saturday. Most are referred by a caseworker for the program. Clients are asked for a voluntary donation of $1.50, but an actual meal costs around $8, including the cost of food, personnel, vehicles and gas. The city subsidizes most of it, with the balance coming from donations.
To find out how you can help this vital program, call 212-222-2552 or visit www.citymeals.org to donate.