Cumberland’s senior lunch delivery program about much more than food

Cumberland’s senior lunch delivery program about much more than food

Peter and Jack Mardo, above left, volunteer with Cumberland’s senior lunch delivery program, with Senior Center Director Mike Crawley last July. Above right, Abby, left, and Amy Daley, also volunteers with the Cumberland senior lunch delivery program stand with some of their deliveries last June.

CUMBERLAND – One of the bright spots about living through the pandemic (and there aren’t many), according to Sarah King, has been Cumberland’s lunch delivery program, where a group of volunteers have been bringing meals to senior citizens in town since March of last year.

“It shows you that people step up when needed,” King, Cumberland’s community outreach coordinator, told The Breeze. “The community proves what it’s really about when (times are) tough.”

Before the pandemic began, the Cumberland Senior Center, 1464 Diamond Hill Road, would provide lunches for seniors through a federal congregate meal program, receiving meals from Aging Well in Woonsocket, King said. Once the Senior Center closed due to the pandemic, volunteers started delivering those meals to seniors in town, some directly to their homes and the majority to senior housing complexes, including Cumberland Manor and Chimney Hill.

Meals are delivered Monday through Friday, and at the height of the program, King said, about 10 volunteers were delivering hundreds of meals to seniors.

The first couple of weeks of the program were the most daunting, King said, but it was incredible to see the number of people pitching in to help. She said she and Mayor Jeff Mutter delivered meals a couple of times together, and she’ll never forget the appreciation the seniors showed.

“I’ve never seen people so happy to get a sandwich in my life,” she said of seniors’ reactions. But the program goes beyond providing food for people in need, she said. It’s built community. “I think people, and seniors especially, were craving connection and craving interaction with people … someone willing to stop and say hello and ask how they’re doing,” she said.

Volunteers have formed connections with seniors, some asking King if someone can check in on a senior if they haven’t seen them in a couple of days, she said. “Volunteers have gotten to know seniors … It’s cool to see over time how much more it’s become than just a lunchtime drop-off.” She added that she loves that some parents have taken their children with them volunteering, and that some of the children made seniors cards for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “It’s become a lot bigger than a lunch,” she said.

While Senior Center staff bags and counts the lunches, volunteers arrive to pick up and deliver the meals, King said. Anyone interested in volunteering can email her at sking@cumberlandri.org .

Support from the community has been consistent over the past year, with groups such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northern Rhode Island and the R.I. Community Food Bank donating meals to the program. King said she has had to do very little outreach with this program, noting that people have been contacting her asking how they can get involved. For example, members of Cumberland Girl Scout Troop 310 recently hosted a fundraiser and provided more than 200 boxes of Girl Scout cookies to the program.

John Johnson, organizer of the town’s Happy Basket program, also opened up his stockpile of nonperishable items, King said, and has been a regular volunteer for the lunch delivery program since the beginning.

“He has delivered lunches every single day except maybe three days to seniors since we started,” she said. “I can’t say enough about his generosity.”

In the beginning, Johnson said he was partnered with another volunteer, and they were delivering more than 500 meals a week. “I enjoy the fact that I’m in a position where I can help out,” he told The Breeze.

“I’m just a delivery guy,” he added. “Everyone else does the work.”

King and Senior Center staff are of course important, but the key to the program has been the volunteers, Johnson said.

“These people show up every day in all sorts of weather and all sorts of vehicles. They never complain, and they always walk into the Senior Center with a smile on their face and a kind word for anyone they see.”

Whether they’ve delivered 10 or 10,000 meals, “they should feel great about what they have done in knowing that they did make a difference in someone’s life,” he said.

Over time, the need for the program has declined a bit, and King said right now about five volunteers are delivering 60 meals per day.

“Do I think potentially there are more than 60 people who still need it? Yes,” she said, but that decrease is a good thing for the most part, as more seniors become vaccinated and are less afraid to leave their homes than at the start of the pandemic.

She said she was nervous that the initial appeal of volunteering would die down a bit and that there would be a big drop-off in volunteers.

“That really hasn’t happened,” she said. “We still have a core group of people who have never stopped volunteering …”

She added, “We’ve had so many volunteers who have given an inordinate amount of time.”

While the Senior Center remains closed, when it does reopen, the delivery program will end and the meals will go back to being offered at the center, King said.

But moving forward, she noted they’ve been working with the Northern Rhode Island Food Pantry in Cumberland on a pilot program to reach more people in need who they weren’t reaching through their normal distribution days.

The pilot started last month at Cumberland Manor, 1 Mendon Road, and as part of the program seniors receive a bag of in-stock items at the food pantry once per month.

Sue Clark and Mike Crawley show off lunches to be delivered to senior citizens in Cumberland last December.