LA GRANDE — With Thanksgiving just two days away, the food service staff at the Union County Senior Center is busier than ever preparing such tasty items as turkey, ham, stuffing, cranberries and sweet potatoes to feed hundreds.
“Thanksgiving week is always our busiest of the year,” said Sydney Gleeson, the Union County food services manager for Community Connection of Northeast Oregon.
Gleeson said her staff prepares more than 600 meals during the three days before Thanksgiving, about double what it normally does during a normal Monday to Wednesday period at the senior center in La Grande. Gleeson likes the challenge of preparing additional meals in a compressed time frame.
“I enjoy having the opportunity to do more for people in need in the community,” she said.
Dianna Douglas, a volunteer cook at the Union County Senior Center, said the greater her work load is, the happier she is.
“The more people I help feed, the better I feel,” she said.
The volunteer said that preparing meals Thanksgiving week and throughout the year is a joy.
“I love to cook and feed people,” she said. “If I couldn’t do it here, I would do it out of my kitchen.”
Douglas worked for Community Connection’s food service center in Wallowa before moving to La Grande earlier this year. She still assists in Wallowa, going there at least twice a month to help when the staff is shorthanded.
Douglas has a firsthand understanding of the demands of holiday season meal preparation. She was the head cook for the Wallowa Senior Center’s Thanksgiving and Christmas programs from 2017 to 2020. After more than 40 years of work as a cook, Douglas is always in her element when preparing meals.
“I love it all, even the dishes,” she said.
Douglas is part of a five-person kitchen staff at the Union County Senior Center. The staff is busy preparing Thanksgiving dinners not only for Meals on Wheels and the daily to-go lunch program at the senior center, but also for a preorder service in which families pick up low-cost Thanksgiving meals.
Terry Everidge, a member of the kitchen staff, said the hectic nature of food preparation during the holiday season is energizing but fulfilling because she knows how much the meals mean to the people they are being prepared for.
“We are busy, busy, but at the end of the day you feel like it is worthwhile, because you get to give back,” she said.
Many of the Thanksgiving meals prepared at the Union County Senior Center to be delivered Wednesday, Nov. 24, to homes include turkey, cranberries, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh baked bread, green bean casserole and pie. Meals on Wheels recipients, in most cases, will also receive regular dinners the other days of the week. The meals are being delivered in advance because the senior center and the Meals on Wheels program will be closed for Thanksgiving and on Friday, Nov. 26.
The number of Meals on Wheels drivers has been increased for Nov. 24 for the La Grande-Island City area because so much extra food is being delivered, Gleeson said.
John DeNault, a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels for more than a decade, delivers meals to about 28 people on his route. He said he is delighted to have the chance to do so because of the quality of the meals prepared by the senior center kitchen staff.
“They get fantastic meals,” he said of those who receive the food at their homes, “and there is a good variety.”
DeNault said it is important to get the meals in the hands of those on his route because many are unable to cook for themselves.
DeNault enjoys talking with the people on his route and he doesn’t like that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Meals on Wheels drivers are not able to go inside the homes of those they deliver to. Still, he visits as much as he can, noting that some step out on to their porches to greet him.
“We talk while staying 6 feet apart,” he said.
DeNault connects with some people on his route by bringing treats for their dogs.
“Sometimes the dogs are more excited to see me than the clients are,” he said.
Gleeson also laments the fact that Meals on Wheels drivers cannot connect more with the homebound clients on their routes.
“It has been a hard time for our seniors,” she said.
Jean Whitmore, who delivers meals with her husband, Steve, said that regardless of the time of year, everyone they deliver to is grateful.
“They thank us profusely,” she said.
Meals on Wheels driver Sue Nichol said that one man she delivers to was so thankful that he offered to reimburse her for gas expenses, an offer she graciously declined.
Meals on Wheels driver Gerry Stairet said one woman she delivers to shares old magazines as a gesture of gratitude.
“It is so sweet,” Stairet said.
Nichol said there are some people she rarely sees now that drivers must leave the meals outside the door because of the pandemic. However, if there is ever a time when a meal hasn’t been taken inside, she will alert Gleeson who will follow up to make sure the recipient is all right.
“We are always checking up on everyone to make sure everyone is OK,” Gleeson said.
Seniors older than the age of 60 receiving Meals on Wheels service are encouraged to make a suggested donation of $4.75 per meal.
People older than 60 who pick up the takeout lunches at the senior center on weekdays may make a donation of $3 per meal. The cost for those who are younger is $5 per meal.The lunch program typically serves 50-85 seniors on most days, Gleeson said.
All of the meal programs run out of the Union County Senior Center are boosted by donations from community organizations and individuals.
“It always amazes me how the community steps up,” Gleeson said.