Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Solving Hunger Across the Generations: St. Louis Meal Runners


Pamela Guest grew increasingly concerned as she watched her volunteers lift the heavy meal carriers and coolers, and place them in their vehicles. It was tough work. Each volunteer was responsible for delivering a hot meal, fruit and milk daily to 16 homebound adults. Without these dedicated volunteers, homebound and frail elderly would not have the hot, nutritionally balanced meals they needed to live independently in their own homes.

As administrator for the South County Senior Resource Center in Lemay, Missouri, Pamela knew that her volunteers were dedicated to their task and rarely complained. But she was also aware that while their spirits were willing, many of their bodies were struggling under the heavy lifting. After all, the majority of her volunteers were in their 70s.


“Too bad you can’t use kids to help deliver meals,” a friend said in passing one day. That chance remark gave Pamela the solution she needed. “When my friend said that, a light bulb went off,” Pamela explains. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we find a way to get young people involved?’”

Inspired, Pamela contacted the principal of nearby Bayless High School to discuss the possibility. During the conversation, the principal mentioned that the school already offered a class called Student Service Learning that emphasized service to the community. Perhaps the class could give students the opportunity to help deliver meals and earn school credit at the same time.

Following several months of meetings, paperwork and training, Meal Runners was launched—and proved so successful it’s now in its seventh year. Today, over 30 young people take part each year.

All volunteers—students and older adults alike—receive training on intergenerational dynamics. The training helps sensitize them to avoid negative stereotypes.

“The older adults and teens work together in two-person teams to deliver meals to 120 homebound elders in the area,” Pamela notes. “The older volunteers pick up their student partners at school and bring them to the senior center where the students now do the lifting and packing of meal carriers and coolers. Then together, the two-person teams deliver the meals.”

“The feedback has been extremely positive,” Pamela says. “The program has helped break down intergenerational barriers and brought people of all ages together to help their hungry and elderly neighbors.”

“Many of the older adults in the program—both volunteers and the homebound—used to be leery or afraid of kids. Now, they see that young people’s hearts and minds are in a very positive place and that these kids are headed in the right direction.”

“One of our drivers, Mr. Unger, always talks about how much he loves the program and how it’s opened up new adventures for him. He’s been paired with students from different cultures—Bosnian, Korean, Hispanic—that he might never have been exposed to. And, he’s become a mentor for a number of youngsters. Kids are interested in his life story and opinions; they ask for his advice, and he helps guide them in a positive direction. Last year, several students nominated him for the MetLife Foundation Mentor Award. He won! That award means a great deal to him.”

“Meal Runners has had a profound impact on the student volunteers as well. Those who may have started out volunteering in order to earn a grade, now see the need in our community. They recognize how important it is to give back. They are also learning to see older adults in a new and respectful way. They realize that not everyone has someone to look after them, but that everyone needs a level of care and concern. Because of their involvement in Meal Runners, some students decided to pursue gerontology after graduation. One even interned with our agency’s nutrition department.”

Pamela, too, has received national and state awards for “Best Intergenerational Program.”

“The change in mindset is so important! We’re producing the next generation of volunteers, and these kids are setting a great example for their peers and older adults alike!”

Driving for Miss Lola

Right after Meal Runners began, “Miss Lola”, just home from the hospital, began receiving home delivered meals. She lived alone, had no children or living relatives, and seemed to have given up. Her loneliness was evident in the way she lived: When students first started showing up to deliver her meals at midday, Miss Lola answered the door in her nightgown, her hair unkempt. She received her meals in silence and closed the door. But the student volunteers had been taught they should make an effort to speak with their homebound neighbors. One day, a young female volunteer gently asked, “Miss Lola, could I give you a hug?”

That simple gesture turned Miss Lola’s life around. She hugged the student, and both began to cry. More important, they began to talk. The next day, when the student and her older volunteer partner drove to Miss Lola’s, they were astonished to see her dressed and well-coiffed. From then on, Miss Lola always wanted her hug. Those who knew her said the end of her life was happier because of the care she’d received from the kids.

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