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Groups in Arkansas help get food to elderly

Pandemic adds wrinkles to deliveries, but doesn’t stop them by Stephen Simpson | April 9, 2020 at 6:32 a.m.

Members of Sheep Dog Impact Assistance are used to working on natural disaster recovery, but the commander of the Central Arkansas chapter said the group has had to adjust because of the coronavirus.

Jeff Watts said the organization originally had 12 delivery drivers who were younger than 55, but that group has thinned with the spread of the coronavirus throughout Central Arkansas. Four drivers have been sidelined because of exposure to the coronavirus.

"We had three firefighters get exposed at work and one nurse get exposed," said Watts, who noted that the group has delivered 1,400 pounds of food to 122 in-need or elderly individuals during the past two weeks. "This has put a strain on our food delivery methods, but we are figuring things out."

Sheep Dog Impact Assistance is one of hundreds of organizations around the state having to figure out new ways to safely deliver food to the elderly while also keeping their workers safe.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Regina Taylor, chief community initiatives officer for the Arkansas Foodbank, said the organization has worked with a number of agencies to keep its senior-citizen program operational. She said organizations have gotten innovative with their delivery processes.

"I know one church in Hot Springs got their youth department to deliver the food to the elderly," she said.

Also, CareLink and the Patrick Henry Hays Senior Citizens Center are working together to provide food boxes to some of the most at-risk individuals in North Little Rock.

On March 12, the city closed all community centers, adult fitness centers and Hays Senior Citizens Center to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Hays Center Director Bernadette Gunn Rhodes said the center worked with CareLink to identify the most at-risk individuals who rely on CareLink's daily breakfast program, which was offered at the center. CareLink contacted those people and arranged to take them food boxes intended to supplement their food supplies for up to two weeks.

"These are all done by referral by CareLink. Not everybody gets a box of food," Rhodes said. "The Hays Senior Citizens Center staff have also been proactively calling members and hooking them up with emergency food suppliers if needed."

Emergency food pantries in North Little Rock include First Assembly of God NLR campus, River City Ministry, Salvation Army, Park Hill Christian Church, Eastgate, Bethany Sharing, Hope Ministry Alliance and First Pentecostal Church.

"This is by no means a complete list, but these organizations have been providing tireless service to the community during this time," Rhodes said. "Others who are in need have also been using the Arkansas Food Bank."

Randi Metcalf, vice president of development at CareLink, said the organization was serving 1,000 senior citizens a day before the pandemic.

Metcalf said the federal government's stay-at-home suggestion for senior citizens has created a situation where almost everyone older than 60 is eligible to be classified as homebound, which has created an influx of people potentially in need of assistance.

"We used to have 250 volunteers help with food delivery, but once we suspended the volunteer program we are now down to 20 to 25 paid CareLink drivers," she said. "We have had drivers pull back as well because they weren't comfortable traveling in this situation."

The organization has adjusted by delivering a week's worth of frozen food in a day instead of daily hot meals. That has put a strain on its logistics, Metcalf said, but it was in the best interest of the volunteers.

"Our food supply has also been delayed about 10 to 14 days, so we have partnered with the Arkansas Foodbank for emergency food boxes as well as the World Central Kitchen," she said.

The organization has been forced to adapt every day, from finding personal protective equipment to paying for at-home technology for its staff, Metcalf said.

"We have been trying to prepare for the extreme for when we can't deliver, so last week we delivered an additional three weeks' worth of shelf-stable food," she said. "That was an additional $4,000 in expenses we didn't have budgeted.

"We have had situations where we give someone a week's worth of frozen meals, but they don't have a microwave to heat it up in. We are really proud of how we are handling this, but it has been a huge shake-up."

Metcalf said if everything remains steady she is confident that the organization can handle the situation, but the worse-case scenario would be if a few of the drivers fall ill or if a large number of requests come in at once.

There are organizations across the state that can be found through local aging and adult services agencies, Metcalf said.

Rhodes said one of the most helpful volunteer groups has been Sheep Dog Impact Assistance, whose members have spent weeks delivering food and groceries to elderly residents who can't leave their homes.

Watts said many Sheep Dog Impact Assistance members are former veterans who use volunteer work as a coping mechanism.

"We deal a lot with people suffering from [post traumatic stress disorder] or combat injuries, and we found that if you are focused on helping others it gives them a renewed sense of purpose," he said. "I tell people, 'you aren't dead yet. You are here for a reason.' ... Helping is healing."

Watts said the organization's chapters are being deployed in their home locations across the nation. He said a chapter in Indiana has created masks that have been sent out across the country, including to New York, where there has been a significant shortage of supplies.

"Each team and chapter is trying to find their mission," Watts said. "Each mission is different."

For the Central Arkansas chapter, the mission was finding a safe way to deliver food to the elderly.

Watts reached out to chapter members who work in the medical field and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and created a safe method to deliver groceries and supplies. He said the process involves creating multiple group texts between the Arkansas Food Bank, the delivery driver and the homeowner.

"The driver will text the homeowner a picture of their vehicle and what they look like and ask where they would like the groceries to be delivered," he said. "We then drop the groceries off using two sets of rubber gloves."

Watts said today the group plans to deliver 722 boxes of food to apartment complexes that mostly house the elderly.

"For us, this is paying dividends by getting people who were in the line of duty off the couch," he said. "For us to be able to help is a good thing for all."

Metro on 04/09/2020

Print Headline: Groups help get food to elderly

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