Feeding their community

TYRONE – Whenever the need arises, someone steps up.

That’s been the key to survival for Tyrone’s Volunteer Church Meals program, started in 1969 by Dr. LeRoy Bowers.

“He was concerned about people who were being discharged from the hospital, and they needed some help. He was concerned they would not be able to provide their own meals,” said Mary Lou White, program co-coordinator at First Presbyterian Church, where the meals are cooked and prepared for delivery.

In the beginning, the meals were provided for community members on a weekly basis before the program was expanded to two days a week in 1976.

Today, the hot meals are delivered to Tyrone residents on Tuesdays and Fridays.

When the program started, about nine area churches participated, but over the years participation dwindled, and the program reached a crisis stage in 2006 when the number of participants fell to three.

That’s when Howard Gardner American Legion Post 281 and Anderson-Denny VFW Post 4559 stepped in to help.

Legion members, who prepare the meals two out of the five weeks each month, were approached by Presbyterian team members Don and Mary Wagner to see if they would be interested in helping.

“I said I would do the cooking if we could get some others to do the delivering. I am the meals, and they are the wheels,” said Legion coordinator Paul Harmison. “It is like a ministry. It gives you a great feeling to help. I always say if I can make someone smile it is a great day for me, and I get to do it twice a week.”

The VFW dropped out after a few years, but in 2013 Trinity Episcopal Church stepped to fill the void.

“I had heard that the program might shut down because of the lack of volunteers,” said the Rev. Jack Hoffer, Deacon-in Residence. “I stopped over at the Presbyterian Church office and indicated that I would be willing to help prepare the meals if they needed a cook.”

Shortly thereafter, Hoffer and seven other volunteers showed up to help.

Today, the meals are provided by volunteers from First Presbyterian, Trinity Episcopal, the legion and St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, which has been a program participant since its inception.

About six years ago, St. Matthew’s nearly pulled out because its volunteers were getting older – 90 percent of the volunteers are 60 or older.

“Mike Ronan and I went to the priest, and between the two of us and his wife, Sue, contacted Mary Lou and told her we would do what we could do,” said Dave Panasiti, who owns Gio’s Restaurant in Woodland. “It bothered me. They were talking that the older people couldn’t deliver, and someone needed to step up. That was the big thing.”

Today, the program serves about 50 people twice a week.

“The names and faces have changed, but there is a need in Tyrone,” Harmison said.

White, who coordinates the delivery list each week, said referrals come in from Blair Senior Services or “through word of mouth.”

There are no specific eligibility requirements, but delivery is limited to Tyrone with a few exceptions. A $2 donation is requested for each meal but not required.

“The goal of the program is to provide hot, nutritious meals for people who have difficulty in preparing meals for themselves. In the winter, a lot of them would be afraid or it would not be safe for them to go out,” White said. “We hate to have to cancel. Most times when the weather is bad, we want to get the meals out to the people. The only time we had to cancel in the last year was if we had a cook become ill.”

Blair Senior Services’ home-delivered meals program does not reach Tyrone, so the church program fills the gap.

“Tyrone is a small, close-knit community. Most of the people we deliver meals to are life-long residents of the community, so it is like taking a meal to a family member,” Hoffer said. “These meals let the people we serve know that they are important to the community and cared for and loved.”

Hoffer said his parish received a $1,500 grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania to help offset Trinity’s participation in the program for the first year.

The program is important to the community.

“It is an incredibly good program. My only regret is they don’t deliver meals more than twice a week. They provide very tasty food and a wide variety of meals. The volunteers are great about delivery,” said Francine Hughes, HUD resident service coordinator at Pennsylvania House, which has 18 residents on the delivery list.

It also is important to the meal recipients.

“You can see in their eyes. They look forward to you coming,” Panasiti said.

For now, the program appears to be in good shape, but volunteers are always needed.

“The biggest challenge to this worthwhile program is the shortage of people in our area who are willing to volunteer a small amount of time to help cook or deliver the meals,” said Mary Wagner, Presbyterian co-coordinator.

“If everybody volunteered, it would change their life and the people they are helping,” Panasiti said. “There is a need for people to step up now more than ever. I wish more people found it in their hearts. There is a need for people who can step up and help.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.