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As drivers arrive to pick up their meals for delivery, Meals on Wheels volunteer Bill Puckett looks over the menu before starting his route in Antioch, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. Meals on Wheels is suffering from a shortage of volunteer drivers to bring food to elderly East County residents. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

EAST COUNTY -- If you can drive and have a couple of hours free, Meals on Wheels wants to talk.

The nonprofit relies on volunteers to deliver daily meals to low-income, homebound seniors throughout the county, and the need for that help in East County is particularly acute, said Program Manager Sharon Fitzgerald, who oversees service from Bay Point to Antioch.

That area has 80 drivers for 16 routes -- each has a different volunteer every day -- but at least 20 of them cancel each week and some back out on the day they're supposed to work, Fitzgerald said.

"The substitute drivers are saints, they really are," she said.

To bolster its resources, Meals on Wheels is looking for 10 more people willing to spend two hours once a week dropping off prepared food for up to 16 seniors.

Fitzgerald also needs 10 individuals willing to step in when the regular drivers can't make it.

Volunteers use their own vehicles, which must be insured. They also are required to attend a one-hour orientation.

In return, they have the satisfaction of knowing that they're feeding both body and spirit.

"Meals on Wheels is so much more than the nutrition," Fitzgerald said. "It also is companionship because many of our seniors live by themselves. This may be the only person they see all day."

The chronic shortage of drivers isn't the only challenge Meals of Wheels is facing; budget cuts at the federal level earlier this year resulted in a loss of about $89,000 to the organization, which contracts with the county.


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Although well over half of Meals on Wheels' funding comes from donations, including whatever the seniors themselves can afford to pay, the nonprofit also receives help from all levels of government.

The county was overextended even before the reduction, and this forced it to reduce Meals on Wheels services for the first time in the nonprofit's 46-year history, said Paul Kraintz, director of the county's senior nutrition program.

On May 1 he placed a freeze on Meals on Wheels' client list, allowing it to accept only seniors in the most dire circumstances until attrition reduced their numbers.

Over the past 2½ months the approximately 1,500 meals the organization delivered daily dropped to 1,300, prompting Kraintz on Friday to lift the restriction on newcomers.

Meals on Wheels still must be careful about how many new clients it accepts, however, and it will give priority to the very low-income who can't afford a caregiver.

Fitzgerald looks back on the last few months with regret, noting that she had no choice but to turn needy seniors away --139 people are now on the waiting list for her area, including 86 in Bay Point, Pittsburg and Antioch.

"It's been awful, I have to tell you," she said. "I felt like the executioner."

For more information about delivering meals and to volunteer, call Sharon Fitzgerald at 925-937-8607.

Reach Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

TO HELP
For more information about delivering meals and to volunteer, call Sharon Fitzgerald at 925-937-8607.