October’s Empowering Cover Woman Nancy Meaders: Meals on Wheels: More Than a Meal

Retirement for some means slowing down, but for Nancy Meaders, it meant the beginning of a new journey—one of dedicating her life to helping those in her community: “At the end of every day, you can go home and realize that you’ve done something good.”

Born in Atlanta and raised in East Point, Nancy has lived in the Atlanta area her whole life. She grew up in a neighborhood full of kids and played outside till the streetlights came on; and she still maintains close friendships with seven or eight girls she went to school with. They get together at least a couple of times a year and go on girls trips together. “Last year we went to New York to celebrate all of our birthdays!” She attended grammar and high school in East Point, went to Clayton State University, and transferred to Georgia State University to complete her degree in business administration.

Nancy had a 25-year career with the federal government, starting in the Federal Aviation Administration, and from there, going to work for the Department of the Navy and the Department of the Army, and finally, working at Ft. McPherson as the head of the resource department for the intelligence division as the capstone of her first career. She chose to retire because her daughters were in grammar a

nd middle school at the time, and she wanted to be home with them.

And while she enjoyed being home with her family, she wanted to have something to dedicate her time towhile the girls were at school. She took a part-time job with Fayette Senior Services, just four hours per day, but gradually, as the need increased, so did her hours until she was a full-time employee. “Working for Fayette Senior Services wasn’t just figures on a page. I loved working for the federal government, but you never really saw the result of the work,” she says. “Here, you see the result every day.”

She started as the information and referral specialist, so when people called and needed help or needed meals, Nancy would do the initial screening and then hand it over to the case manager. “If they needed resources within the county, it was my job to know what resources were out there or who to refer them to,” she says. “That was 20 years ago when we operated out of a little trailer. We’ve come a long way since then!”

When Fayette Senior Services moved into its new building near the courthouse, the director called Nancy into her office. She had looked at her resume, saw her extensive finance experience, and questioned why she was only doing information referral. Nancy was promoted as the new finance officer. “The next thing I knew, I was the CFO,” remembers Nancy. And then, when the director left, Nancy moved into that role. “It was a gradual progression. I’ve done just about everything here, except… they don’t let me in the kitchen, with good reason,” she laughs. “I’m not a good cook. I hate to cook. I can serve food on the line, but don’t make me go in the kitchen.”

While the non-profit Fayette Senior Services provides countless resources for seniors in Fayette County, including socialization, non-medical transportation, dining, and classes at its Life Enrichment Center, its founding program is Meals on Wheels, providing meals to members of the community. “We always make sure that every new employee delivers at least one Meals on Wheels route because it is an eye-opening experience,” Nancy says. “It helps them to really understand the cornerstone of our agency.”

Meals on Wheels is a needs-based program authorized by the Older Americans Act, passed by Congress in1965 “in response to concern by policymakers about a lack of community social services for older persons” (acl.gov). The Older Americans Act is responsible for the organization and delivery of nutrition services. And for 42 years running, Meals on Wheels of Fayette County has been providing nutrition to our neighbors who need help.

“I think the community would be surprised about how many people we serve in this county and what goes on behind the scenes to get it done,” says Nancy. Anywhere from 160 to 180 meals are delivered each day that the center is open, typically five days per week. In addition, those who are food insecure receive additional meals for the weekend, Nancy adds. And once per quarter, volunteers deliver boxed, shelf-stable meals as well, in the event there is inclement weather. Nearly 56,000 meals are delivered annually in Fayette County.

Prepackaged flash-frozen microwavable meals are delivered to the center each morning from Open Hand Atlanta. Open Hand employs several chefs and nutritionists to assure that the meals are balanced and meet requirements for older adults. A standard meal includes meat, vegetables, bread, and milk—if milk is not allowed in the diet, there is juice available—and the meals are different each day.

Upon delivery, the meal coordinator and two other team members unpack the boxes, distribute meals into dozens of coolers, and have the coolers organized according to routes, ready to go by 10:30 a.m. Volunteers pick up the coolers and spend an hour or two on a route before returning the cooler to the center to prepare for the next day. Fayette Senior Services has specialized route configuring software, built specifically for them, that gives drivers the names, addresses, and exact directions from one house to the next. “We make it as easy for our volunteers to come in and do this as humanly possible,” says Nancy.

There are many regular volunteers who do at least one route per week, and sometimes more. In addition to individual volunteers, area companies and other agencies sign on for routes as a team (Heritage Bank, Piedmont, Pinewood, and Fayette County Government, to name a few).

The pandemic has increased the need for meals in the area, Nancy says. There are those who call to say they can’t get to the grocery store, and volunteers from the center have gone for them. In one instance, a client who was visually impaired had a caregiver who was quarantined and couldn’t make the regular grocery store run. They called in a panic, and a volunteer went to get their list and went to the store in their place.

There are always extra meals ordered and kept at the center for emergencies. When someone calls with aneed, Nancy says they don’t wait for the standard assessment process to be complete. They move into action and start delivering immediately. “It happens all the time that the hospital will call and they’re releasing someone who needs help. We take them what they need and do the assessment process later, if they’re going to continue needing meals.”

Typically a new client will go through an assessment to determine the level of need. “When you start going through the process and they start talking, you may find out that they need other help,” Nancy reveals. “They might need help with light housekeeping, or they might need help getting a bath. They may need help getting to a doctor’s appointment. People start to open up, and you can get an insight into what they need.”

Nancy has delivered every route that Meals on Wheels has in Fayette County, and the disparity between the homes and neighborhoods the recipients live in is surprising. There are those living in evident poverty, and there are those who live in unexpectedly large houses with landscaped lawns. “We have people from all walks of life, from those who have very little to those who may have been very successful but because of some problem or medical condition, they can’t cook anymore, or maybe they can’t stand long enough to prepare a meal,” Nancy explains. “They may have neuropathy, or maybe they have Alzheimer’s and they can’t have their stove hooked up.”

“It’s very humbling to see sometimes how lonely people can be,” she adds. “The volunteers who deliver the meals… they may be the only person that client sees the entire day. The volunteers aren’t just delivering a meal; they’re our eyes when they go to the client’s home.”

They get to know the clients, she says. And they can report back that a client isn’t feeling well, or that something seems off, and they might need to be checked on. Fayette Senior Services has an alert system for such times. A driver can fill out the form when they return to the center with their cooler, and a case manager will take over and check on the client. “It really is more than just a meal. We couldn’t do it without the volunteers.”

Just last month, the center organized a home repair for a blind client who lives in a trailer. “Her top step had rotted and one of our Meals on Wheels drivers came back and said, ‘This is an accident waiting to happen.’ We partner with several groups around here, but this time it was the Masons; they sent a team out and built her a brand new set of steps! It was so cute when she came out. She was crying and said, ‘I can’t see them, but I know they look great!’”

“The things that we do help them to be able to live in their homes much longer than they would be able to without the help,” Nancy continues.

In addition to Meals on Wheels, the Ani-Meals program is a resource for clients with pets. One of the questions in a client’s initial assessment is whether they have a pet and if they have enough money to buy them food. “We discovered many years ago when we delivered their meals that they were sharing their meal with their pets,” Nancy explains.

“They shouldn’t have to do that, so we offer delivery of pet food once per month. And sometimes it’s not money, it’s just that if they’re homebound, they can’t get to the store to get them food.”

Many members of the community donate money and food specifically to that program. “They know how important it is if a senior has an animal and may live alone, that may be their companion,” Nancy remarks.

Another big upcoming focus of Fayette Senior Services is its annual Project Love campaign which kicks off this month and runs through the holidays. The mail-out campaign strives to raise extra money for Meals on Wheels in this season, as the funding the center gets for the program doesn’t cover the days they are not open. “We’ve taken it upon ourselves every year to do a fundraising campaign to raise enough money to buy those meals for the holidays,” Nancy says. (The fundraising also helps to pay for Ensure, which many seniors rely upon for extra nutrition, is often prescribed by their doctors, and can be very expensive).

“October through December is a hard time for a lot of seniors. And it’s hard for older people to say they need help, but that’s what we’re here for,” she assures.

Nancy has loved living in Fayette County for more than 30 years, and feels blessed to be able to spend so much of her time giving back and spending time with her daughters and their children. (Nancy has four grandkids, ages 3 to 17). “People really care here. You can get so involved and people really know each other and help each other here!”

If you or someone you know is in need of help with food or other needs, please contact Fayette Senior Services (770-461-0813). The center is always looking for volunteers and has many opportunities listed on its website (fayss.org). And donations are always appreciated.