Meals on Wheels offers food, comfort to South Hills residents
Pam Mason thinks nothing of planning and cooking meals for more than 60 people.
Three meals a day, five days a week.
"I do the meal planning, usually the day before it is cooked," said Mason, chief executive officer, site coordinator and cook at South Park Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit she helped start at her church, Grace Lutheran Church, in South Park. She is also the church's organist.
"That's why I get up every day at 4 a.m.," said Mason, who lives 10 minutes away in Jefferson Hills. "I love my job."
And her dozen volunteers (the number fluctuates) do too.
Through their combined efforts, Mason and the volunteers feed an average of three meals a day to 60 people living in South Park, Pleasant Hills, a portion of Jefferson Hills, as well as South Baldwin and parts of Bethel Park. Mason's group, which works out of the basement of the church, does this on a shoestring budget of $90,000, all donated.
"Occasionally we get a grant through the Greater Pittsburgh Area Food Bank," said Pam, the nonprofit's only paid employee. "We couldn't survive without them."
"We are people helping people."
On this particular day – a Monday – Mason and four volunteers were busy packaging the final lunch deliveries. One lady was ladling green beans into individual containers.
Veronica and Gilbert Debor, Jefferson Hills residents, who volunteer for Mason, were patiently standing off to one side waiting for the finishing touches on the meals they were to deliver. Veronica Debor delivers the food to the recipient's door, while Gilbert Debor does the driving.
"They needed volunteers," Veronica Debor said. "That's why we're here."
The number of meals delivered on a route can vary from one to more than a dozen, said Mason, adding it all depends.
"No day is ever the same."
Neither are the meals. Mason doesn't use salt when cooking. She also tries to vary the food as much as possible. On a recent Wednesday, breakfast was half a bagel with peanut butter and a banana. Lunch was a ham and cheese sandwich, while dinner was roast beef and mashed potatoes.
"Since we don't deliver on weekends, the Friday dinner is usually a pasta and we cram a lot of food in too," she said. "You can barely close the Friday bag."
Many of her meal decisions are based on what they have from the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, or donations from Giant Eagle, Trax Farms, or Trader Joe's. In 2016, South Hills Meals on Wheels provided 35,396 meals and last year it made 41,448 meals.
"Social Security is not going up, but rent keeps going up," Mason said. "It gets to the point where people can't pay."
Anyone 60 and older is eligible to become a client of South Park Meals on Wheels. Also, anyone under the age of 60 who can't shop for food or prepare their own food can get help from the nonprofit. Technically, the food is free because of food donations. Mason, however, said most clients provide a $5 a day donation to cover program costs, as well as packaging.
The typical person served by South Park Meals on Wheels is in his or her late 80s and lives alone, doesn't drive anymore, and their primary source of income is Social Security, Mason said. Some people are able to pay the $5 a day donation.
Bobbie, one of Mason's regular volunteers who preferred that her last name not be used, said her grandson is having ear surgery next month. She said one of her regular clients, who is in his 50s and suffering from colon cancer, gave her a cross to give to her grandson.
"It came down to either eating or paying for his cancer drugs," Mason said.
There was also a client who used to be a concert pianist and when her volunteers found out, they persuaded him to play for them.
"It was something we and the neighbors looked forward to," Bobbie said.
The nonprofit also had another client who typically was in his boxer shorts and T-shirt watching sports and drinking beer when the food was delivered.
"He was always friendly and told the volunteer to put the food on the table," Mason said. "One day the volunteer came in and found him dead. He had a can of beer in his hand and sports were on the television."
Mason said the most frustrating thing about running South Hills Meals on Wheels is getting information out to the public. She would like to help more people.
"God provides," she said. "If something happens, then we'll handle it."
Suzanne Elliott is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com or 412-871-2346.