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28 Nov 2017

A Lifeline for Seniors: Mizell and Its Meals on Wheels Program Serve 170,000 Meals a Year—but Funding Is Always a Challenge

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Joaquin Martinez, the Meals on Wheels outreach program coordinator, gets set to the Desert Hot Springs route. Joaquin Martinez, the Meals on Wheels outreach program coordinator, gets set to the Desert Hot Springs route. Kevin Fitzgerald

As the turbulent year of 2017 churns toward its conclusion, you may be looking for a place to grab a dose of the Christmas spirit.

I found a place—the Mizell Senior Center in Palm Springs, which administers the Meals on Wheels program for the Coachella Valley.

“We just put our Christmas ‘giving tree’ up,” said Ginny Foat, the executive director of the center. “Our Meals on Wheels drivers—who are professionally trained full-time employees and not volunteers—come back from their routes and give us the names of clients who are just really poor. We sent each of those poorest clients a flier asking them what they wanted for the holidays. When they send us their wish list, we attach them to ornaments which we hang on the ‘giving tree.’ Then, people voluntarily come and pick an ornament and go out and buy specifically for that one person. The kind of lists we get are for books, stationery, electric razors, socks, slippers or new blankets. We never get lists asking for perfume, jewelry and computers. It’s really heartwarming to see all these people voluntarily come take the ornaments off the tree, and then come back with all these wrapped presents that we deliver to client homes on Christmas Eve.

“Another thing we do is deliver holiday bags to every single one of our clients that are filled with items donated by the community,” Foat said. “In the beginning of December, we collect toiletries, socks and other essentials, and then we deliver a huge bag of stuff to each client right before Christmas.”

To the staff of 23 people who enable the Mizell Senior Center’s Meals on Wheels program and provide year-round nutritional support to the neediest seniors living throughout much of Riverside County, generosity of spirit and acts of caring are a way of life every day.

“Our nutritional program has two initiatives: the congregate sites where people come in and have lunch together at different sites that we handle, and then we have the home delivery (via Meals on Wheels),” said Laura Castillo, the director of nutrition and operational services. “… Through Meals on Wheels, we deliver some 465 meals per day. Both the congregate sites and our home-delivery clients range from Whitewater to the west, and all the way east to North Shore, Mecca, Thermal, Coachella and Indio, as well as Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, (other area cities) and two senior communities in Palm Springs, along with our Mizell Center here. Also, we’ll probably start serving Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center at the beginning of our next fiscal year (July 1, 2018).”

Along with these primary responsibilities, the Meals on Wheels team does other things that aren’t necessarily in the job description.

“Sometimes, our delivery drivers are the only person who our clients will see in the whole day,” Castillo said. “That’s part of what makes this program so great. Yes, it gets hectic and frustrating when there’s not enough of this or that, but the support this program gets from the Mizell Senior Center itself is huge. It’s become such a great community.”

The requirements set by Riverside County for participants to qualify for Meals on Wheels service are strict.

“You have to have no one in the house who can cook or go to the grocery store,” Foat said. “You need to have no means of transportation.”

Whether or not a client can qualify for Meals on Wheels, the center’s staff is always looking for ways to improve every senior’s life.

“If a client can find a way to come into the center to get their meals, we encourage it, because they’ll make friends and have a motive to come out of their homes,” Castillo said. “I had a client two years ago who didn’t want to leave his house. I told his kids, ‘He’s mobile, and you need to get him to come to the center.’ So finally, his kids got him to come. Then, six months later, I hadn’t seen him for awhile, so I called the family, and they told me that he was in Oregon. When he came back at the end of the summer, I found out that he had married one of our other clients who he met here at the center. That was so cute. So, it’s a social program. It really is.”

All these good works require a lot of funds—funds that aren’t always readily available.

“Right now, we’re under-budgeted (for the volume of service we provide),” Castillo said.

Foat said Mizell’s Meals on Wheels program never lets any eligible senior go hungry.

“One of the things I think is so unique about our program is that we serve one-third of the (Meals on Wheels) in Riverside County, but we are the only purveyor for the county that does not have a waiting list,” Foat said. “Others start a waiting list each year when the county funds run out, but we fund-raise. This is a hard thing to do, but our board has decided that food is the most important thing for anyone, since without food, you can’t exist. You can’t do anything. So we’ve committed to never having a waiting list, and we have to fund-raise constantly to support this ideal.”

The Riverside County contract supplies the center with not quite 80 percent of the funding required. That means Mizell’s staff and board need to raise the money to subsidize 20-plus percent of the total—or the cost of roughly 34,000 meals, plus the cost of 20,000 extra meals that are not subsidized by the county.

“This year, because the county funds were much reduced, we’ll probably be looking at 50,000 meals that we’ll have to raise the money to pay for,” Foat said. “But it’s so important, since a lot of the clients that we deliver to are so dependent on that meal. Without it, they would not be eating.

“Also, another good part of our program is that we deliver pet food to seniors who have pets. We partner with the Palm Springs Animal Shelter pet-food bank, and twice a month, we deliver either cat or dog food, because we found that sometimes, our seniors’ only companion is their pet.”

To donate money to the Mizell Senior Center and its Meals on Wheels program, visit www.mizell.org, or drop off a check at the center, at 480 S. Sunrise Way, in Palm Springs. To donate essential goods for holiday gift bags or participate in the “giving tree” effort, simply stop by the center.

Below: The Mizell Senior Center kitchen staff: Kelly Wills (executive chef), Laura Castillo (director of nutrition and operational services), Mike Williams (kitchen assistant 1), Pedro Hernandez (kitchen assistant 2), Steve Bautista (sous chef), AJ Pelen (kitchen assistant 2), Irma Hernandez (kitchen assistant 2), Keith Strother (volunteer) and Mindy Burnett (cook).

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