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Lifeline: Meals on Wheels delivers more than good food

It thrilled me to watch the little grandmother break into a grin with delight when we delivered her hot lunch. My partner, Colin, carried the thermal bag and I would lay out her soup, her hot meal and small bowl of desert. She always stood and watched, savouring the small luxury of being served.

And then the most important part of our quick visit: She'd ask how cold it was outside, or what "foolishness" city council was up to, or what we thought of the Toronto Blue Jays' prospects that season.

For others on our route, it was the food that mattered most. One old man, who told us every visit how his teeth had been stolen, would smack his lips and tuck his serviette into his T-shirt when we unpacked his lunch. Another made us wait until he'd tasted each dish. One sad woman, who obviously hadn't moved from her couch in days, cried when we didn't bring soup.

But it wasn't about the food for us, a group who acted as "runners" each week for the Meals on Wheels drivers at Mid-Toronto Community Services. No, we went to see the seniors who lived alone in Regent Park. We were a lifeline, the only humans many of these seniors would see for weeks on end.

"The unfortunate part is that the primary reason you're there is to deliver a hot meal," says Shannon Stevens, director of service development with the Ontario Community Support Association (OCSA). "If they're the first person on a list of 10 or 12 you have to deliver to, you don't have a lot of time to chat. It's hard to balance the social part with the need to get the meals to the people who need them."

Recent figures for Toronto Meals on Wheels programs show that nearly 10,000 solitary seniors who are unable to cook receive a hot, nutritious lunch each day.

In 1999, about 800,000 meals were delivered and served in the city by nearly 4,000 volunteers, who gave up more than 180,000 of their own lunch hours to act as drivers and delivery folks.

Yet the need remains great. "Meals on Wheels is always looking for volunteers," says Stevens, urging those interested to call local providers or volunteer agencies. "We're trying to involve corporations that can get their employees involved in helping, either through spending one lunch-time a week or even a month."

For me, once a week was all the nerve I could muster. It was a tense trip through apartment building hallways in Regent Park, past burned mattresses and groups of young men who stopped talking to watch us pass. We were young and fit, and traveled in pairs. How frightening would it be for a frail senior to go out for a meal, or to go grocery shopping?

Once inside the seniors' apartments, though, our effort was rewarded over and over again. We tried to make them talk and smile, and we laughed the hardest when they'd offer a chuckle.

Then came the day the little grandmother wasn't waiting for us at her door. I knocked and waited. My heart pounded and I knocked again. I took a deep breath and tried the handle, just as she opened the door. We saw her usual place setting for the lunch we carried, and beside it sat a teenaged grandson.

"My grandma said she had visitors," he said with a shrug, "so I thought I'd come to make sure she's eating her lunch." That young man will never know just how much his visits meant to his grandmother. And to me.

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