Zeke Muller, 87, receives a meal from Jane Whaley, developmental director for the senior meals program of Josephine and Jackson counties. - Jamie Lusch

Nourishing the Soul

(See correction note below)
Jane Whaley loads a red ice chest into the back of her black station wagon and heads out on her route delivering meals to housebound seniors for Food & Friends' Meals on Wheels program.

Whaley is the development director for the meals program in Jackson and Josephine counties. As she winds along Central Point city streets and country roads, Whaley discusses the purpose of the program — and why it is in desperate need of more volunteer drivers.

"Our senior population is growing from between three and five percent per year," Whaley says. "We take pride in the fact we have never had to put anyone on a waiting list. But that's why we need more volunteers. Otherwise we're going to reach a tipping point."

Just a couple of hours one morning a week can make a big difference in a senior's life, Whaley says.

Whaley's paying job is fundraising for the senior meals program. But the busy single mom also volunteers her own time as a driver at the Central Point site. She takes an early lunch once a week to help deliver meals because it helps her "stay connected to the mission at hand," she says.

This year Food & Friends volunteers will provide more than 235,000 meals to about 4,000 people from its 15 sites.

About 55,000 meals are served at the meal sites. But more volunteer drivers are needed to help deliver the 180,000 Meals on Wheels provided each year to seniors who live at home, but who for health reasons cannot shop or make their own meals, she says.

A typical route consists of deliveries to about eight homes and takes less than two hours. Delivering her first two meals downtown takes Whaley just minutes.

Some meal recipients or their caregivers prefer to accept their meal at the door with a quick offer of thanks, she says.

Others welcome a chance to chat, Whaley says, pulling into a rural driveway.

"Come on in! It's a beautiful day," says Zeke Muller, an 87-year-old widower.

Muller waves Whaley into his home and motions for her to have a seat next to him. A World War II veteran who served under Gen. George Patton, Muller prefers to live as self-sufficiently as possible. But he is plagued by the vagaries of old age and the fallout from injuries suffered in a post-war logging accident.

"I cut logs for about 15 years. Then I had a log run over me. It hit me from behind and broke my arm, leg and hip. Messed me up pretty good," Muller says with a smile and a wince at the memory of how a fellow logger used his Caterpillar to pull the giant tree off of him and save his life.

"I can still hear him asking if I could crawl out. I was in the hospital for a couple months," he says.

A Central Point resident since 1945, Muller and his wife of 65 years had three children. He lost his wife in 2006. His daughter died in a motorcycle accident when she was in her 20s. His two sons are older, don't live in the area and aren't able to visit often, Muller says.

"They're busy. They got their own lives to live. We'll get together someday. Yes, we will," he says.

Muller expresses appreciation for both the fellowship and the tasty hot meal Whaley and other volunteer drivers bring to his home each weekday.

"When you get old, you don't realize the things you need to do that you used to be able to do, but you just can't anymore. I can't cook. If it wasn't for these meals, I'd just as soon throw my hat in the wringer," he says.

Food & Friends volunteer Sue McMurray has spent 15 years as a volunteer driver, seven of them in Central Point. Though she doesn't know Muller personally, she appreciates his fight to maintain his independence.

McMurray hopes to "build some good karma" for her own dad by helping seniors stay in their homes as long as possible, she says.

"I do it because I have an elderly father who does not live in the area," McMurray says. "If everybody helps somebody someplace, that makes the world a better place."

Being a volunteer brings other benefits besides peace of mind, McMurray says. Some housebound seniors may have little outside contact, but they still have wisdom to share, she adds.

"They have a lot to teach us younger people," McMurray says.

Meals on Wheels currently delivers 15,000 meals per month. As the population ages, the demand is increasing. And the need for volunteer drivers is particularly crucial in Central Point, Whaley says.

"We could use help at all our sites. But we really need help in Central Point," Whaley says.

Jean Miller began volunteering for Food & Friends when she retired in 2004.

"There were two things I wanted to do: deliver food and work with Smart Reader. I was able to do both," says Miller, adding she has enjoyed getting to know the seniors on her delivery route.

Drivers pick up their meals at the site at 9:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. There are no deliveries on the weekends. Drivers can volunteer for just one day a week for about an hour and a half, or more if they have the time and so choose, Whaley says.

"Basically what it means is you're taking one route, one day a week," she says.

The meals provide one-third of the recommended daily allowance of required nutrients. Made by a private company in a central location in Medford, the components (an entree, two vegetables, milk and dessert) are transported to the meal sites, where they are packaged for delivery each morning by site volunteers, Whaley says.

Low sodium and diabetic meals are available on request. The agency covers a wide range of clients, she says.

"As long as they are over 60, unable to drive, shop or cook, they qualify," Whaley says.

Gas costs to volunteers are reimbursed upon request, she says.

"I donate mine back to the program," Whaley says.

Federal funding covers about 75 percent of the program's budget. Fundraising, program income and the United Way also help contribute to the operation. A donation of $2.75 per meal is suggested, Whaley says.

"But no one is turned away due to their lack of ability to pay for a meal," she adds.

As Muller and Whaley converse, Muller good-naturedly shrugs off her exclamations of concern when he speaks about a couple of recent falls he took in his yard while out chopping wood. He wasn't injured in the falls. But his bad knees prevented him from getting up. Although Muller wears a medical alarm button, he didn't want to "bother" the company by sounding his personal alarm.

"They have to help the people who really need them. I just crawled around until I found something I could use to pull myself up with," he says.

Whaley tells of how one meal recipient suffered a fall when alone at his house. Another suffered a heart attack. Both hung on because they knew a meal driver would arrive soon and provide help, she says.

"We're a safety net as well as someone who provides meals," Whaley says.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

Correction: The original version of this story included a typographical error in the headline. This version has been corrected.

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