Bigfork Meals on Wheels delivers lunch, with a side of companionship

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    Meals on Wheels volunteer driver Debbie Petek, of Bigfork, loads meals for her route through Ferndale Friday morning.

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    Meals on Wheels volunteer driver Debbie Petek, of Bigfork, loads meals for her route through Ferndale Friday morning.

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  • 3

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Debbie Petek’s SUV bobbed down a rugged dirt road on the outskirts of Ferndale Friday before the lunch hour. Four sacks, each containing freshly prepared hot lunches, were safely stowed away in her backseat as she wound her way deeper into the countryside.

After about 10 minutes, Petek turned into a familiar driveway and came to a stop in front of a modest yellow house. She grabbed the bag marked “Irene Danz” and rapped on the door.

Petek crossed the threshold to find Danz waiting in an arm chair with her wood stove cranking away in the corner.

“Can you sit?” Danz asked. Not today, Petek responded regretfully. She was running slightly behind schedule and there wasn’t time for their usual 10 to 15 minute chat. Nevertheless, the pair made small talk for a few moments as the meal was exchanged, speaking briefly about Danz’s paintings and the resident squirrel that had taken a liking to her.

With a warm handshake and a goodbye, Petek was off to the next address.

Petek is one of four volunteer drivers for the Bigfork area Meals on Wheels program that serves 18 residents from Bigfork to Woods Bay, three days a week.

It’s the highest number of customers they’ve had in years.

“We’ve more than doubled in the last six months, almost tripled, the amounts of food we’re sending out,” said Rocky Feckete, site manager for the Bigfork Community Center, the distribution hub for Bigfork’s Meals on Wheels. “Since I’ve been here three years, this is the most people we’ve ever fed.”

Meals on Wheels America delivers warm entrees to more than 2.4 million seniors across the country to fight senior hunger and isolation. The Flathead County program serves 80,000 meals annually through sites in Bigfork, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Lakeside, and their primary location in Kalispell, said program manager JR Isles. The operation is funded in part by federal and state dollars, along with fundraisers and private donations.

Nearly 9.5 million seniors are threatened by hunger nationwide, with 2.2 million of those having very low food security, meaning they sometimes go hungry because they cannot afford to buy enough food. A lack of food isn’t the only issue Meals on Wheels seeks to address — 20% of seniors in America also report feeling lonely.

“I’ve got one gentleman that says the meals are great — a visit from somebody is 10 times better,” Petek said.

The Bigfork program delivers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, to customers who largely reside within a 15-mile radius of Bigfork. To qualify, customers must be over the age of 60 and homebound, although those under 60 who are on Medicaid are also eligible with a waiver.

“Basically no one gets turned down,” Feckete said.

For those who can afford it, the center charges $4 per meal, but folks who aren’t able to pay for the meals don’t have to. The same rules apply for the hot lunch that they serve at the Bigfork Community Center for those who are able to make it into town.

“One of the sad things I get, and it’s usually women who are alone in God’s country, they’ll get their first bill and they panic and they stop the meals,” Feckete said. “And no matter how you try to explain to them [that they don’t have to pay]… they’re just so panicked and they won’t take them.”

But the range of customers that Meals on Wheels caters to in Bigfork isn’t limited to low-income families.

“We serve wealthy people and we have people who live in deplorable conditions, you can’t believe it,” Feckete said. “They are by and large single people, but we’ve had a husband and wife in the past where the wife is very sick and the husband can’t get out, can’t get away from her to go shopping … It’s a broad spectrum — it’s not just the poor.”

Currently, the program operates with a skeleton crew of just four volunteer drivers to serve its 18 customers, many of whom live in very rural locations. Sometimes drivers will go as far out as the Swan Valley or to Woods Bay to reach patrons. Unfortunately the increase in customers hasn’t meant an equivalent jump in volunteer interest. They’re currently in need of a driver to transport meals from the Kalispell Senior Center, where the food is prepared, back down to Bigfork for distribution three days a week on alternating weeks.

“People want to come, but what happens is a lot of people have lives — they have kids they’ve got to go and visit … their lives aren’t such that they can devote the time,” Feckete said. “Debbie’s our hardest driver. If anybody’s missing, she’ll do the whole route.”

Petek started volunteering with Meals on Wheels three years ago as a way to fill her time after an early retirement.

“I just thought, they never have enough volunteers doing things so I just called and asked,” she recalled, “And they said, when can you do it — right now?”

Petek drives the Ferndale route, which includes up to six stops over 23 miles and takes her about an hour and a half, including visiting time. At the onset, Petek thought delivering for Meals on Wheels would be akin to dropping off lunch to her grandmother. The reality, while rewarding, proved to be less rosy.

“I found out, you knock on the door and the door’s falling off the hinges, you walk in and there is poverty, they need help, they’re lonely,” she said. “It was surprising to me how much in need they were. Not just a meal — they just need someone to say hi to.”

She makes time to visit with each of the customers along her route, even if only for a few minutes. Over the years a few friendships have been borne out of these interactions.

“I’ve got some people that no longer do it and I still stop by,” Petek said. “Sometimes I’ll make banana bread or cookies,” as long as their diet permits.

She’ll also do a few light chores for her customers, like taking out the garbage, lifting a bag onto the counter or even hunting for a pair of missing spectacles.

“I’m making a difference in someone’s life. It makes me cry,” Petek said with a wavering voice.

“It makes you feel good to see them smile. It’s just a little bit, but you’re making a difference for them.” »

BREAKOUT:

Get involved

To sign up for Meals on Wheels home delivery call the Agency on Aging at 758-5730. Those interested in volunteering are asked to call Rocky at 837-4157.

To support the Flathead County Meals on Wheels program, mail a check to Agency on Aging, 40 11th Street West, Kalispell, MT 59901, with a memo for Meals on Wheels.

Debbie Petek’s SUV bobbed down a rugged dirt road on the outskirts of Ferndale Friday before the lunch hour. Four sacks, each containing freshly prepared hot lunches, were safely stowed away in her backseat as she wound her way deeper into the countryside.

After about 10 minutes, Petek turned into a familiar driveway and came to a stop in front of a modest yellow house. She grabbed the bag marked “Irene Danz” and rapped on the door.

Petek opened the door to find Danz waiting in an arm chair with the wood stove cranking away in the corner.

“Can you sit?” Danz asked. Not today, Petek responded regretfully. She was running slightly behind schedule and there wasn’t time for their usual 10 to 15 minute chat. Nevertheless, the pair made small talk for a few moments as the meal was exchanged, speaking briefly about Danz’s paintings and the resident squirrel that had taken a liking to her.

With a warm handshake and a goodbye, Petek was off to the next address.

Petek is one of four volunteer drivers for the Bigfork area Meals on Wheels program that serves 18 residents from Bigfork to Woods Bay, three days a week.

It’s the highest number of customers they’ve had in years.

“We’ve more than doubled in the last six months, almost tripled, the amounts of food we’re sending out,” said Rocky Feckete, site manager for the Bigfork Community Center, the operational hub for Bigfork’s Meals on Wheels. “Since I’ve been here three years, this is the most people we’ve ever fed.”

Meals on Wheels America delivers warm entrees to more than 2.4 million seniors across the country to fight senior hunger and isolation. The Flathead County program serves 80,000 meals annually through sites in Bigfork, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Lakeside, and their primary location in Kalispell, said program manager JR Isles. The operation is funded in part by federal and state dollars, along with fundraisers and private donations.

Nearly 9.5 million seniors are threatened by hunger nationwide, with 2.2 million of those having very low food security, meaning they sometimes go hungry because they cannot afford to buy enough food. A lack of food isn’t the only issue Meals on Wheels seeks to address — 20% of seniors in America also report feeling lonely.

“I’ve got one gentlemen that says the meals are great — a visit from somebody is 10 times better,” Petek said.

The Bigfork program delivers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, to customers who largely reside within a 15-mile radius of Bigfork. To qualify, customers must be over the age of 60 and homebound, although those under 60 who are on Medicaid are also eligible with a waiver.

“Basically no one gets turned down,” Feckete said.

For those who can afford it, the center charges $4 per meal, but folks who aren’t able to pay for the meals don’t have to. The same rules apply for the hot lunch they serve at the Bigfork Community Center for those who are able to make it into town.

“One of the sad things I get, and it’s usually women who are alone in God’s country, they’ll get their first bill and they panic and they stop the meals,” Feckete said. “And no matter how you try to explain to them [that they don’t have to pay]… they’re just so panicked and they won’t take them.”

But the range of customers Meals on Wheels caters to in Bigfork isn’t limited to low-income families.

“We serve wealthy people and we have people who live in deplorable conditions, you can’t believe it,” Feckete said. “They are by and large single people, but we’ve had a husband and wife in the past where the wife is very sick and the husband can’t get out, can’t get away from her to go shopping … It’s a broad spectrum — it’s not just the poor.”

Currently, the program operates with a skeleton crew of just four volunteer drivers to serve its 18 customers, many of whom live in very rural locations. Sometimes drivers will go as far out as the Swan Valley or to Woods Bay to reach patrons. Unfortunately the increase in customers hasn’t meant an equivalent jump in volunteer interest. They’re currently in need of a driver to transport meals from the Kalispell Senior Center, where the food is prepared, back down to Bigfork for distribution three days a week on alternating weeks.

“People want to come, but what happens is a lot of people have lives — they have kids they’ve got to go and visit … their lives aren’t such that they can devote the time,” Feckete said. “Debbie’s our hardest driver. If anybody’s missing, she’ll do the whole route.”

Petek started volunteering with Meals on Wheels three years ago as a way to fill her time after an early retirement.

“I just thought, they never have enough volunteers doing things so I just called and asked,” she recalled, “And they said, when can you do it — right now?”

Petek drives the Ferndale route, which includes up to six stops over 23 miles and takes her about an hour and a half, including visiting time. At the onset, Petek though delivering for Meals on Wheels would be akin to dropping off lunch to her grandmother. The reality, while rewarding, proved to be less rosy.

“I found out, you knock on the door and the door’s falling off the hinges, you walk in and there is poverty, they need help, they’re lonely,” she said. “It was surprising to me how much in need they were. Not just a meal — they just need someone to say hi to.”

She makes time to visit with each of them, even if only for a few minutes. Over the years a few friendships have been borne out of these interactions.

“I’ve got some people that no longer do it and I still stop by,” Petek said. “Sometimes I’ll make banana bread or cookies or something, as long as their dietary is OK.”

She’ll also do a few light chores for her customers like taking out the garbage, lifting a bag onto the counter or even hunting for a pair of missing spectacles.

“I’m making a difference in someone’s life. It makes me cry,” Petek said with a wavering voice en route to the next house. “It makes you feel good to see them smile. It’s just a little bit, but you’re making a difference for them.” »

BREAKOUT:

Get involved

To sign up for Meals on Wheels home delivery call the Agency on Aging at 758-5730. Those interested in volunteering are asked to call Rocky at 837-4157.

To support the Flathead County Meals on Wheels program, mail a check to Agency on Aging, 40 11th Street West, Kalispell, MT 59901, with a memo for Meals on Wheels.

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