Volunteers Make a Difference
April 7, 2022Jim Oswald

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands — one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”
— Audrey Hepburn

According to the Corporation for National & Community Service study, one in four Americans volunteer. The demand is strong! Volunteers make the Bay Area a better place through their time and talents and at Meals on Wheels San Francisco, they are an integral part of our team.

Behind the scenes, our organization has a group of dedicated staff, making sure the Volunteer program runs smoothly. In 2021, despite the ongoing pandemic, more than 600 Meals on Wheels volunteers logged 15,000 hours of work – dedicating their time and resources to make sure homebound and isolated seniors in SF received weekly groceries, friendly check-up calls, and other services that make life just a little bit easier.

The Meals on Wheels Volunteer team is led by Kathy Stirling, Director of Volunteer Programs, Community Outreach, and Corporate Engagement. Stephanie Galinson and Nancy Fisher are Volunteer Program Managers, and Maggie Shugerman is the Volunteer Coordinator.

Serving Purpose

The team sees the impact volunteering has on people every day, not just on the clients but on the volunteers themselves. Some benefits of volunteering include an added sense of purpose and making new friends.

For many, volunteering with Meals on Wheels San Francisco has become an essential part of their lives.

“We’ve had volunteers say, ‘I need the Home Delivered Groceries Program as much as the clients need us because this gives purpose and structure and meaning to my days,'” said Stephanie.

“They come because they want to be helpful,” she continued, “and they stay because they formed a community. They have relationships with the clients, they have relationships with us as staff members, and they have relationships with each other that extend beyond Meals on Wheels. It becomes a part of their life.”

Helping Hands

The core volunteer programs and activities Meals on Wheels offers in San Francisco include:

  • Home-Delivered Groceries — the largest volunteer program on site reaching some 500 seniors weekly with bagged, delivered groceries provided by the SF-Marin Food Bank.
  • Friendly Social Call program— older clients looking for companionship by phone are matched with qualifying volunteers.
  • Grocery Shopper program – matches older adults with qualified volunteers who shop for necessities and food staples and deliver them to their homes.
  • Thinking of You Cards – Thoughtful notes crafted by the community and then delivered by staff to clients
  • Client Needs – Ongoing support that goes beyond food by supplying household items seniors need such as refrigerators and microwaves, and sometimes even beds.

In 2021, volunteers gave generously of their time:

Some volunteer programs, like the Friendly Social Call program, have been a challenge since the beginning of the pandemic due to the need to keep everyone safe. Others, like the Grocery Shopper and Home-Delivered Groceries, are going strong, albeit with some changes for safety for both volunteers as well as senior meals recipients.

Home-Delivered Groceries (HDG) was born out of the Food Security Task Force, led by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. City agencies (like the Department of Aging) and nonprofits (like Meals on Wheels and various WIC programs) that deal with food security are represented. HDG launched as a pilot at Meals on Wheels on July 14, 2010, with just 50 clients. Since then, it has grown exponentially over time to serving just shy of 500 people weekly.

Read more about the Home-Delivered Groceries program.

Meals on Wheels San Francisco volunteer Tatiana takes part in the Friendly Social Call Program. She recently reflected on her time with MOWSF client Peggy.

“We mainly chat about travel since she has been all over the world, and we are both tea lovers. She even owned her very own tea shop! It’s been an honor getting to know such a successful woman.”

The need for volunteers is constantly growing, but helpful hands are eager to support a great cause. As Kathy explained, the Home-Delivered Groceries program saw an enthusiastic response for volunteers even during the pandemic.

“We were overwhelmed with people who wanted to help. Thousands of people came out.”

The Client Needs Program, a small but critical solution for some clients, is also heavily supported by volunteers. For example, the Social Work Department will identify items that a client needs like a microwave or small refrigerator. These can be tricky things to send in the mail, so the Volunteer Department finds volunteers that can deliver the item. In years past, volunteers would also sometimes install the item, which is something MOWSF hopes to bring back once things are safer.

An opportunity for larger groups—like companies and organizations—to help out with prior to the pandemic was the distribution of Emergency Kits. These emergency supplies containing shelf-stable food and other safety items, come packaged in a brightly colored drawstring backpack. Volunteers delivered these throughout the year to nearly 3,000 older adults who receive Meals on Wheels. During the pandemic, drivers and staff have taken on this program to ensure all are safe.

Working with larger organizations gives the volunteer department the chance to open up conversations within the community about food insecurity and isolation issues many seniors in the community experience.

“It gives us an opportunity to talk about what we do at Meals on Wheels and the larger context in the space in which we operate,” said Kathy.

Last, but not least, a simple way for people to lend a hand from home is by crafting a handwritten note. Cards can help lift someone’s spirits when isolated and alone. Every year since 1970, our volunteers have made and distributed hand-made cards. In 2021, they made a record 20,000 cards!

Giving Thanks

You can’t talk about the volunteer program at Meals on Wheels San Francisco without talking about Thanksgiving, one of the organization’s most significant community events.

Pre-pandemic, almost 1,000 people would come on Thanksgiving morning to get meals out to the older adult community. The past two pandemic Thanksgivings have been a challenge and the beloved event had to be pulled back for safety concerns.

Instead, for safety, our staff drivers ensured the Thanksgiving meals were delivered during that week. Volunteers did play an important role during the holiday in 2020. Meals on Wheels set up a makeshift phone bank where volunteers called senior meal recipients on Thanksgiving morning to wish them well.

Volunteers on Thanksgiving come from many walks of life and not just from San Francisco. Robin Worrall, lives in the UK and works with a tech company in the Bay Area. He flies to the US periodically for work. One of these trips coincided with Thanksgiving, and he found himself stateside, not knowing that everyone closed shop on a Thursday to consume turkey, be grateful and hang out with friends and family!

Instead of allowing boredom to set-in while in his hotel room, he looked for a volunteer opportunity for the day. He emailed Kathy at Meals on Wheels San Francisco, who eagerly signed him up.

“I still remember to this day,” Robin said, “Kathy striding up to me out of a sea of volunteers—guys dressed as turkeys, cars, kids and cool bags—and pulling me physically and emotionally into the family of Meals on Wheels San Francisco with the warmest of hugs. How she picked me out of the crowd, I will never know—maybe I had a sign hovering over my head saying, ‘Lonesome Brit?'”

He has been a volunteer ever since, often flying in from the UK.

That’s dedication!

To learn more about ways you can volunteer, visit MOWSF.org/volunteer.

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