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Volunteers are spark behind Meals on Wheels

| Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009

For Helen Beech, it's become a kind of Monday morning ritual.

She starts each week about 9:15 a.m. with single-serving helpings -- two pieces of chicken Creole here, a scoop of mashed potatoes there -- as she doles out food to be packed up and delivered to area seniors. She has volunteered for the Forest Hills Senior Center's Meals on Wheels program for about six years.

"I feel like I'm doing something for someone," said Beech, 84, of Forest Hills as she worked in the center's kitchen this week. "A lot of these people can't get out -- to shop or anything."

The Forest Hills operation on Avenue D, which is run by the nonprofit Eastern Area Adult Services, is a small but important one, organizers said. Twenty to 25 meals are packed up and delivered each weekday. Meals are served on site, too.

But help is needed.

"The center runs with volunteers. If I didn't have volunteers, I wouldn't be able to do it myself," said Donna McLaughlin, the senior center's director. "We're looking for that person who works 3 to 11 ... or the recent retiree who's not going to work every day and (is) saying, 'Now, what do I do?' "

The center is seeking volunteers for Meals on Wheels and for reception work. It's looking for people who can instruct seniors in everything from exercise and dance to how to use a Nintendo Wii.

"What you can do and when you can do it is OK with us," McLaughlin said. "We can figure it out."

Gloria DeMartini knows what it's like to get the most out of volunteers. She started volunteering at the senior center about 17 years ago, when she came in for a flu shot.

"When I was there, I said I wouldn't mind delivering Meals on Wheels (and) the next thing I knew, I was in charge," said DeMartini, 81, of Forest Hills.

Today, DeMartini, a retired teacher, does the scheduling for the Meals on Wheels program. When volunteers tell her they're going to Florida from January to June, for example, she finds the replacements. Sometimes, she delivers meals herself.

"You don't realize how much time you have on your hands," she said.

Time is what brought Jim Ardisson to the Forest Hills Senior Center.

Shortly after going on disability from his job painting cars two years ago, Ardisson was looking for something new to help fill his days. Years ago, his wife's grandfather used to take part in a Meals on Wheels program.

"It's something to do, basically, and I like helping people," said Ardisson, 54, of Swissvale, as he prepared to deliver a batch of hot meals. "It's good going to the people's houses knowing they aren't getting these meals unless you're coming."

Eastern Area Adult Services runs four centers: one each in Forest Hills, Turtle Creek, Swissvale and Braddock Hills. In addition to what it offers at the centers -- "the older adults' version of Starbucks," according to Alice Hilliard, the group's executive director -- it offers personal care and housekeeping for seniors at home.

"People want to stay home as they get older," Hilliard said. "We try to provide services that ... break down any barriers for them to stay home, as long as it's a safe environment."

Additional Information:

How to help

To volunteer at the Forest Hills Senior Center, call Donna McLaughlin at 412-824-5610.

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