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3/17/2017 6:56:00 PM
Proposed federal cuts could be 'devastating' for Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana
Staff and volunteers prepare food Friday morning to be delivered by Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana. Staff photo by Becky Jacobs
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Staff and volunteers prepare food Friday morning to be delivered by Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana. Staff photo by Becky Jacobs

Becky Jacobs, Post-Tribune

A line of volunteers and staff wearing hair nets packaged food in the kitchen as David Byrd loaded up a truck to deliver the meals to people around Lake County as part of Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana.

In her office, executive director Sandra Noe played CNN on her computer to watch their national organization's leader to see how cuts proposed this week in President Donald Trumps's budget blueprint could impact Meals on Wheels.

The exact details are unknown, but proposed eliminations of block grants outlined in the budget could potentially "be a devastating blow to our ability to provide much-needed care for millions of vulnerable seniors in America," said Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, in a release. And they're still waiting for details about the Older Americans Act, "our network's primary source of funding," the release states.

In Lake County alone, Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana serves about 1,400 meals a day to people, and cuts to federal funding for the program could impact Lake County "drastically," Noe said.

There's "definitely a growing need" for the program "because the demographic is growing and people are living longer with more chronic diseases," Noe said. The release from Meals on Wheels America touched on that growing need, saying that federal funding "has not kept pace" and "waiting lists are mounting in every state."

When Noe first heard the news Thursday, she said she left the office feeling "sick" about the idea. Friday morning, she fielded calls from area donors about what loss of federal funding could mean, including from one donor who previously served on the organization's board.

"He understands firsthand the impact that we make in the lives of our clients and their families, and he was angry about what he heard on the television yesterday because he knows how critical the service is here in Northwest Indiana," Noe said.

Northwest Indiana's meals are paid for through grants and donations, as well as federal funding, Noe said. Last year, Lake County received about $700,000 in federal funding for the Northwest Indiana program, and that's a significant amount for local donors to try to pick up, she said.

"That's significant. Now overall, that was probably about 34 percent of our total meal revenue, but it gives you an idea that while we feed a lot of people, a lot of those individuals are dependent on those federal dollars for their food," Noe said.

But beyond budget concerns and the numbers, "Meals on Wheels is so much more than just a meal," Noe said. When volunteers show up to deliver meals, "very often, that person, that volunteer is the only person that homebound individual sees in a day," Noe said, and they get to know each other.

Byrd, who has been with Meals on Wheels of Northwest Indiana for about four years, is known as the jokester, Noe said, bringing smiles. Volunteer Jeanne Wease said she enjoys also being able to help out with little errands for participants, such as taking their mail to the mailbox or setting the garbage out.

"It's the most exciting thing you can do because, first of all, you're meeting some really wonderful people and maybe for just that moment in time, you've made a difference in their life for that day," Wease said.

They also provide informal welfare checks, Noe said. Years back, volunteers had a feeling something was off when a Crown Point woman didn't answer her door, she said. After getting a set of keys from neighbors, they found that the woman had fallen in her bathtub the night before. As Noe helped her out of the tub, she said the woman told her, "I knew that Meals on Wheels was going to come."

"I stayed with her and made a pot of coffee and the volunteers went on their way," Noe said. "But what would've happened to that lady if it wasn't for Meals on Wheels? How many days would she have laid in her tub until someone checked on her?"

Family members try to help care for their relatives, but they "still have to go to work everyday," Noe said.

"If you're gone for nine hours, this is someone who's going to knock on the door, bring grandma a meal, give her a little bit of a visit and give you a call if grandma doesn't look well or if grandma has fallen," Noe said.

Volunteers donating their time in hours and miles helps with costs, providing what Noe estimated as "a quarter of a million dollars a year," Noe said. While that helps, they still need funding, and losing federal funding wouldn't eliminate the program altogether, but it would impact the effect they could have on the community.

"It's sad that we can find money for so many things but not to take care of those who need it the most," Wease said.

Whether the potential cuts happen or not, though, Wease said that they'll "figure out a way" to keep helping people.

"We've always done that, and we'll continue to do that," Wease said.

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• Trump's proposed budget cuts would hurt poorest most, says Evansville official

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