CHUGIAK — Doña Mahurin has an iron-grip handshake forged by years as a civilian firefighter and medic on the U.S. Army’s Fort Richardson. But those years of toil also took a toll on Mahurin’s back, and the Chugiak retiree now has a difficult time with household chores like cooking dinner.
“I can’t stand there long enough to cook,” said Mahurin, gesturing to the kitchen area in the Chugiak apartment she shares with her husband.
But thanks to “Meals on Wheels,” a program run by the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center, Mahurin and her husband are guaranteed at least one hot meal five days a week.
“It saves our butts,” Mahurin said of Meals on Wheels. “I don’t know what we’d do without them to tell you the truth.”
Center executive director Linda Hendrickson said the hot lunch is often the only home cooked meal clients receive.
“Sometimes we’re the only meal they have that is balanced,” she said.
The number of clients in the program varies, but Hendrickson said driver Peter Rainville averages about 30 deliveries each day. Last year, Hendrickson said the program delivered more than 7,700 meals in the Chugiak-Eagle River area. And she’d love to do more.
“I think we could probably do double that,” she said.
The program is supported through grant money from the state, as well as donations from friends of the center and Meals on Wheels clients. Although many people who take advantage of the program can’t afford to spend much, some — like Mahurin — said they try to chip in as often as possible.
“I try to donate as often as I can,” she said.
Rainville has been driving for the program for 10 years. A former big rig driver, Rainville said he took the job because it was less hectic than driving 18-wheelers down the treacherous Seward Highway.
“It was always go, go, go,” he said.
Rainville leaves the senior center each day at around 11 a.m. with the meals, which are the same as what’s on the center’s regular menu that day. On a recent Monday, that menu included meatloaf, mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, an orange, milk and ham-and-potato soup. Rainville said the entree is a particular specialty of the center’s head chef, Amy Barnes.
“She makes the best meatloaf I’ve ever tasted,” Rainville said.
With the help of business and individual sponsors, he center bought a special truck two years ago to accommodate the meals. The $60,000-Ford Super Duty includes heated and refrigerated compartments, the temperature of which Rainville can monitor from inside the truck’s cab.
The program isn’t limited to senior citizens.
“Anybody over the age of 18 who has a disability is eligible,” Hendrickson said.
She said the center would be happy to see more clients sign up for the program.
“Just call us up and we’ll get you hooked up,” she said.
It takes a couple hours for Rainville to make his rounds. At each stop, he takes a couple minutes to chat with the clients. For some, it’s the only human interaction they get all day. Hendrickson said Rainville’s interaction with clients can be as important as the meals themselves.
“The socialization is huge,” she said.
Once a month, the center also sends a nurse along with Rainville to assess the health and well-being of clients.
Mahurin said the personal touch is appreciated.
“They’re concerned enough that they’ll call you to find out how things are going,” she said.
Rainville said he enjoys the people he meets delivering meals. Although some people only sign up for the program for a short time, others have been getting Meals on Wheels for years. In those cases, Rainville gets to know the clients very well. At one house, he consoles an elderly woman who recently lost her dog by putting his arm around her shoulder.
“They become a big family,” Rainville said. “They’re like my aunts and uncles.”
Mahurin said the services provided by Meals on Wheels are something a lot of people find valuable.
“There’s a lot of us out here that really need it,” she said.
Having someone to stop by every day with a hot meal and a kind word, she said, is priceless.
“It’s a damn good program and the people who do it are wonderful,” she said. “I pray every night and thank God for them.”
For more information on Meals on Wheels, call the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center at 688-2677 or visit www.chugiak.org.