Four women arrived at the Penn Hills Senior Center on a recent brisk but sunny winter day ready for their early morning routine centered on volunteerism.
The hair-netted women caught up and chatted about the erratic weather, all while working seamlessly in the small kitchen to pack meals that would later be delivered to around 160 people in Penn Hills.
“It’s a nice, smooth system,” said Eileen Darrah, one of the four volunteers, as she packed slices of bread and butter packets in plastic bags.
The day’s menu featured Tuscan chicken, white bread, cubed butternut squash, peas, shortbread cookie and milk. Recipients also received a frozen breakfast and juice.
The women divided into four stations, each representing a different route.
Darrah, 78, of Penn Hills, said she has volunteered for the senior center’s meal delivery program for two years. She started after retiring from a 25-year career in the Veterans Administration.
“I just needed something to do,” she said.
She is one of 38 volunteers the senior center relies upon daily for its 30-year-old meal delivery program. The program is offered to qualifying seniors through the Area Agency on Aging, or AAA, and is touted to be one of the county’s longest standing.
“We were one of the first centers to do it in the county,” said Phyllis Paciulli, the center’s director. “And then, more places through the years started doing it.”
According to the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, which oversees the AAA program, there are eight other contracted providers delivering meals throughout the county: the Catholic Youth Association, Eastern Area Adult Services Inc, Hill House Association, Jewish Association on Aging, Lifespan Inc, Northern Area Multi-Service Center, Plum Senior Community Center and Riverview Community Action Corp.
According to latest DHS data, the agency recorded 454,098 meals delivered to 3,237 adults from July 2017 to June 2018 from all the groups combined. Those numbers have seen a slight and steady increase within the last five years.
The AAA meal delivery program differs from the Meals on Wheels program, which has four kitchens serving 43 communities in Allegheny County, according to its website.
The meal delivery program at the Penn Hills Senior Center is successful largely due to its consistent pool of volunteers, said Jan Austin, the center’s home delivery meals coordinator.
Austin, 51, said the number of volunteers has stayed solid since she took the full-time position 12 years ago. However, a handful of them are getting older and will need to be replaced as they step away from the role, she said. Some move away during winter months or travel for summer vacations.
“Three drivers are out of town for the winter,” Austin said. “So right now, we need help filling those spots — even if they could drive one day a week.”
Austin said the senior center program is unique compared to other meal delivery groups in the region because it provides vehicles.
“They don’t have wear and tear on their own vehicles,” she said.
Austin calls the volunteers her “angels.”
“And they’re family. If I didn’t have them, the program would not work,” she said.
For Eleanor Atkins, 87, the feeling is mutual.
“The pay is lousy but the people are lovely,” she said with a smile as she packed cookies in plastic bags.
The sprightly Penn Hills resident doesn’t remember when she started volunteering.
“It’s been a long, long time,” Atkins said. “I like to keep myself busy. There’s nothing to do at my home. This gets me out of the house. I can have coffee with the girls, discuss world politics. And some of these people could really use the help.”
One of those people is Anthony Stasiak, a 99-year-old World War II veteran who now lives with his daughter, Antoinette Laws, 66, in Penn Hills.
“They’re like angels on wheels,” said Laws of the volunteers, echoing Austin’s sentiment. “The weather they come out in … they’re really something special.”
Laws was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1985. She worked until 1999 in the operating room of Citizens General Hospital in New Kensington. She said her father moved into her house in 1997 when she had a foot injury and couldn’t walk.
She and her father became eligible for the senior center’s program last year after she had surgery on her hip. Shopping for food and preparing it became too strenuous a chore, Laws said.
“It takes everything out of both of us. (The program is) a real blessing for us,” Laws said.
The AAA meal delivery program is available to Allegheny County residents who are 60 and older. Eligibility is based on completing an assessment tool. For more information call the county’s Seniorline at 412-350-5460.