Rachel Dudney, Ken Holliday, Janyce Dudney, Jeannette Ralston and Mary Holliday, one of the cook teams for Meals on Wheels in Kingsport, prepare lunches for the program's homebound clients. Photo by David Grace.
KINGSPORT — White trays took up every inch of available space on a large aluminum counter. A woman was making her way around to every tray, filling one slot with peaches.
More women were filling the trays with other food items. Once the trays are filled, they are stacked by fives on the counter.
Rusty Wilkerson is at a round table that has a large clipboard lying on it. Pinned to the board are multiple sheets of paper with names, addresses and dietary preferences or restrictions. There are 84 names on the list and Wilkerson refers to it as the master sheet.
The master list contains the name of every person who will be receiving food from Meals on Wheels.
"These are route sheets. They go to the drivers so they know who to deliver to," he said. "This gal here is in the hospital. Take her off, we're not going to deliver to her."
Meals on Wheels is a group of volunteers, funded by the United Way, who deliver food every day to homebound people, most of them elderly. The organization has been in operation in Kingsport since the 1970s.
There are three Meals on Wheels operations in Sullivan County, two in Kingsport and one in the county. The two in Kingsport operate out of two churches — Waverly Road Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church.
About 250 hot meals are delivered every day to city residents. The meals are delivered along 13 routes covering most of Kingsport, Bloomingdale and the Lynn Garden Drive area. All the routes are driven by people who usually volunteer once a month. The food is prepared by volunteers as well.
Once Wilkerson finishes reviewing the master list, he begins to take the stacked trays and separate them out on tables. He looks at the route sheets to know the number of meals each route will need and which people on the route have dietary restrictions.
Once the trays have been separated into the five routes and cartons of milk have been counted out, he takes a seat and waits for the drivers.
"Always the great strain is 'Are they all going to get here?' " Wilkerson said. "If they don't, guess who gets to do two routes. ... I'd say about 10:15 to 11 o'clock, I sit there and worry if the phone is going to ring."
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, all the drivers show up. A couple of the drivers work at Eastman and others are retired. Once they fill boxes or coolers with all the meals, they are off.
Wilkerson is the last one out the door, making sure all the drivers have picked up their trays and route sheets. He loads two coolers and a duffel bag full of milk into the backseat of his car and takes off.
Over the course of the next hour, he delivers meals in a variety of ways to a variety of people.
One of his first stops is to a blind woman who has a dog. The dog tried to come through the screen door at a volunteer one time, so now they drop the meal off in a cooler outside her door.
For some, the Meals on Wheels drivers will be the only face they see all day.
The people who answer the door are grateful for the meal and to see a friendly face. Some don't answer the door and others barely seem to notice Wilkerson's presence.
Along the route, he delivers to a couple who have Alzheimer's disease. The route sheet tells the driver they have to inform whoever answers the door that they have brought their lunch or the couple will set the box down and not eat.
Wilkerson delivers to another couple where the husband always sits on the porch. The last few times Wilkerson has delivered this route, he hasn't seen him, but today he's back out on his porch.
After talking with the man for a while, he is informed that the man's wife passed away a couple of months ago.
Another woman doesn't say a whole lot as he walks into her home and sets the meal down.
"She's sitting there watching TV, waiting to die," he said. "That bothers me."
Most of the people along this route are happy to see him and offer big smiles and warm thank yous.
When the final meal is delivered, Wilkerson heads out to get his own lunch. He knows this meal might be the only one these people get for the rest of the day. Knowing the need and not knowing the future keeps bringing him back to volunteer.
"My favorite tale I say is 'That could be me,' " he said. "It may very well one day be me."
Meals on Wheels is always in need of volunteers. Without the help of so many, providing food to those who need it would not be possible.
If you would like to volunteer your time or find out more about volunteering, please call Wilkerson at 341-9807 or Lysa Harmon at 612-8687.