By Stephen Neukam
Ken Potavin arrived around 10 a.m., as usual, on Sept. 6 to pick up the meals packaged in Daly Dining Hall to deliver to the seniors on his Meals on Wheels route.
Last year, Potavin, who retired from the insurance industry almost a decade ago, volunteered 161 days to help feed seniors in need.
Meals on Wheels, a national, federally-funded organization that aims to address senior isolation and hunger, delivers meals to the homes of seniors in thousands of communities in the U.S.
In 2018, Gourmet Dining, the food service provider for Rider University, partnered with Meals on Wheels Mercer County to help package, process and deliver meals to the county’s residents.
“[Gourmet Dining prepares] upwards of 300 meals daily and close to 450 on Fridays for weekends,” said Chief Executive Officer of Meals on Wheels of Mercer County Sasa Olessi Montaño. “While Gourmet Dining is technically our caterer, they truly are our partner.”
The program serves eight of the municipalities in the county. Potavin explained that while he does not have a routine course that he follows to deliver meals, a lot of the volunteers develop familiar relationships with the seniors they serve because of how much they see them.
“I don’t have a regular route,” said Potavin. “Most people have a regular day and a regular route. I just go where they need me, and they always need me.”
While the nearly half year that Potavin volunteered last year may seem like a large commitment, he pointed out that other volunteers also make significant sacrifices. One man, he explained, takes two separate buses to get to Rider to help out. Another woman comes on her lunch breaks from work.
“[The volunteers] are remarkable,” said Montaño. “They show up in extreme weather conditions, some several times a week, every week. We could not do what we do without our dedicated and caring volunteers.”
Volunteer Coordinator Kareem Cropper, a Marine veteran, said the volunteers he works with are “a great group of people.”
Last year, Meals on Wheels Mercer County served over 530 people and just under 75,000 daily meals, according to the organization’s yearly report. Additionally, 76 percent of the people it served were below the poverty line or at risk for poverty.
However, the program means more than just the meals that the seniors receive, according to Potavin. The interaction between the volunteers and the recipients is key to the operation.
“The people always love you,” said Potavin. “You give them the food and they say, ‘God bless you, thank you so much.’ A lot of them don’t see anybody else all day. So, they are happy to see you.”
Senior sociology major Erin Lagay, who participated in Meals on Wheels last year and also worked at a food pantry when she was young, said that the program was worth volunteering for.
“I thought that [Meals on Wheels] was great and I’d had experience with volunteering before so I knew what to expect,” said Lagay. “I think it was well organized and pretty easy to get involved in because anyone can do it and I even got extra credit for a class.”
Through the partnership with Gourmet Dining, there are a number of ways that students at Rider can participate in Meals on Wheels. Students can help deliver meals that they pick up or help package meals at Daly Dining Hall. Interested students can contact the Office of Service and Civic Engagement at firstname.lastname@example.org.