At Orchard View Community Education in Muskegon last week, the cars kept coming.
There were hundreds of them, each one manned by a masked driver: retirees living on fixed incomes, older workers who have lost jobs, caregivers, and others struggling in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
Within an hour, about 355 individuals had received 1,500 meals from AgeWell Services of West Michigan, a nonprofit formerly known as Nutritional Services for Older Americans and Meals on Wheels. As Covid-19 spreads across Michigan, AgeWell Services has dramatically expanded its meal operations to meet a growing need for food among older resident; the organization—which serves Muskegon, Ottawa and Oceana counties—is now regularly offering curbside meal-pickups for those 60 and older. In addition to the 5,796 home-delivered meals the organization provided last week to 908 elderly individuals who are homebound, last week AgeWell served an additional 7,367 meals to 1,492 people at its four weekly curbside locations. In total, the nonprofit served 13,163 meals to 2,400 seniors last week.
“The demand has grown pretty immensely,” AgeWell Services of West Michigan Executive Director Kris Collee said. “In Grand Haven and at Orchard View, we ran out of food after just one hour.”
Thanks to emergency plans that had already been set in place, as well as partnerships with the Muskegon YMCA and the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids’ Veggie Van, AgeWell was able to quickly launch its curbside operations in March; the first pick-up was held March 24 at the Muskegon Farmers Market. Each pick-up provides five meals—three frozen and two shelf-stable. For seniors who may not be able to leave the house, AgeWell is allowing others to pick up meals for them.
The meals, which are assembled by people standing at least six feet from one another and are placed in individuals’ cars by an AgeWell representative wearing a mask, are being provided at no cost to the recipient—though donations are welcome and needed, Collee said. The curbside effort is also being supported by the Senior Resources of West Michigan and with funding from the Muskegon County senior millage. Police and fire departments too have gotten involved with helping to direct traffic at the various sites.
As AgeWell continues to meet an increasing demand for meal services, its “number one need right now” is donations, Collee said.
“We have a lot of unexpected expenses that are not typical for us,” she said. “All of our participants are invited to donate towards meals to help pay for them, and we’re seeing a decline in giving from our participants. We anticipate that will decline pretty drastically over the next few months. We are definitely in need of help financially.”
As nonprofits throughout the region, and across the country, face an expanding coronavirus crisis, numerous organizations have had to cancel or postpone major fundraising events for the year, including AgeWell. The group suspended its annual “Heels for Meals” event, its largest annual fundraiser that typically brings in about $60,000 worth of revenue each year.
“It leaves a pretty big gap to fill, even though federal aid is on its way,” Collee said, referring to the CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The executive director expects AgeWell will land funding through both of the acts, though she said it’s unclear as to how much the organization will receive.
In addition to providing meals, AgeWell has continued its transportation program for low-income seniors who need to get to medical appointments.
“That’s still operating right now, but only for our highest priority clients who need to get to dialysis, cancer treatment and heart treatment,” Collee said. “We’re continuing those life-saving rides to 51 clients.”
As the organization continues to provide meals, transportation and other connection for seniors, many of whom are living alone, Collee said there’s both a determination and sadness among workers who are frightened for their clients and themselves.
“This has been extremely difficult,” Collee said. “At first, there was this adrenaline, this idea that, ‘OK, we’re going to help people,’ and when Gov. Whitmer announced the stay-at-home order, it was like a balloon got deflated from our whole team. There was a different level of panic and fear when people realized the personal risk in coming to work and the scariness of what’s happening on a daily basis. You’re worried if you yourself have enough food at home, or what happens if you get sick.”
To address this, AgeWell has put in a number of precautions for its employees and clients, including providing masks for workers and maintaining at least six feet of distance between individuals.
“We’ve had an amazing community of sewers who have made masks for everyone,” Collee said. “That has helped with everyone’s morale. We’ve been trying to do everything we can to ease the anxiety they feel at work.”
Upcoming curbside pick-up locations will be held at the following times and places:
Tuesday, April 7, 12pm-2pm
Heights City Market
99 E. Center St., Muskegon Heights
Wednesday, April 8, 12pm-2pm
Ravenna First Reformed Church
3327 Mortimer St., Ravenna
Thursday, April 9, 12pm-2pm
7100 8th Ave., Jenison
Friday, April 10, 12pm-2pm
Community United Methodist Church
1614 Ruddiman Dr., North Muskegon
Tuesday, April 14, 12pm-2pm
Fruitport Congregational Church
9 N. 8th Ave., Fruitport
Wednesday, April 15, 12pm-2pm
Coopersville Reformed Church
423 W. Randall St., Coopersville
Thursday, April 16, 12pm-2pm
Orchard View Community Education
1765 Ada Ave., Muskegon
Friday, April 17, 12pm-2pm
480 State St., Holland