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Meals on Wheels in need of volunteers to keep on rolling

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It’s just before lunchtime Wednesday at Artesia General Hospital, and Jeremy Imai is ready to roll.

As he collects the carefully packed containers he and mother Terri will be delivering for Artesia Meals on Wheels, he’s happy to note that the people he visits are always excited to see him — “especially my ‘grandparents.’”

As is the case for many Meals on Wheels volunteers, the Imais have become like honorary family members to the participants they’ve been serving three days a week for the past five years. Often, a friendly face can be just as nourishing as the much-needed meal that accompanies it.

“Sometimes, it’s the only hot meal these people get,” program coordinator Jenna Willhelm says. “So it’s really important. They really depend on this food.”

Also picking up meals for delivery Wednesday were two more regulars: Selah Perkins, longtime owner of La Fonda Restaurant, and Willhelm’s daughter, Lexi. The procedure is quick and efficient. After signing up for a route online, volunteers arrive at AGH around 11 a.m. The local hospital is contracted and paid by Meals on Wheels for their meal prep services.

Everything is waiting on a shelf in the kitchen — a route binder and a plastic tub containing meals, drinks and desserts that are then distributed to Artesians in need. Those needs can vary greatly among the 25 to 30 participants Artesia Meals on Wheels is currently serving.

“These are mostly senior citizens who are homebound,” said Willhelm. “We do have some participants who have intellectual disabilities, are on hospice, or are medical.

“I have somebody on service right now who just had surgery and just needs meals through that recovery time, so sometimes it’s temporary and sometimes it’s long-term.”

What is never temporary, however, is Artesia Meals on Wheels’ need for volunteers. Willhelm took over as coordinator of the program in the latter part of 2021 and has experienced the sadness that comes with having to turn potential participants away.

“I have home health agents calling all the time asking for meals for people who desperately need them but who we just can’t handle because we don’t have the volunteers,” she says. “We rely on our volunteer base to deliver for us.”

Two possible misconceptions Willhelm feels may deter potential volunteers is the assumption that they’ll be called upon to commit to a regular delivery schedule or will be out for hours delivering meals.

“The people who sign up just one time or every once in a while make a huge difference, too,” she says. “People can just help out as they’re available. And it’s actually really simple. It takes about 30 to 45 minutes to run a route. We try to keep them short so people can do them on their lunch break.”

Artesia Meals on Wheels currently has three routes in need of volunteer drivers each weekday. Sign-up is as easy as clicking a button. Companies and organizations, along with students and others in need of community service hours, are also welcome and encouraged to volunteer whenever possible.

“We have a couple of companies in town that will dedicate a week every month or something like that,” Willhelm says. “The Methodist church does two weeks twice a year for us where they take two routes, which is a huge help. EOG does one week every month where they take a route, and George Gandy does one route for a whole month.

“If companies can commit to that, it’s a huge thing, too, because it doesn’t take up somebody’s lunch break.”

Stay-at-home parents are also welcome to bring their children along for the ride.

“Our participants love it when kids come to help,” says Willhelm.

Along with other local nonprofits that relied heavily on funding from the disbanded North Eddy County United Way, Artesia Meals on Wheels — a 501(c)(3) — is also always grateful for monetary support.

“We did really appreciate our funding that we got from United Way, and we are very lucky that we have several companies and foundations that donate to us now, along with private citizens,” says Willhelm. “We receive no funding from the government at all. All our funding is from local donations and grant programs.”

Participants receiving meals are asked to make a donation of $2 per meal if they can afford it to help offset costs.

“But if they can’t pay, they’re never turned away,” Willhelm says. “We have a lot of people on service that can’t afford anything for it, so we do rely on donations, fundraising and grants.”

Those interested in donating to Artesia Meals on Wheels may call Willhelm at 575-513-1166 for information. Those wishing to volunteer their equally valuable time, meanwhile, are encouraged to visit www.facebook.com/groups/artesiameaslonwheels and look for the post dated Jan. 11, which includes not only a link to the route sign-up page but to a Google document outlining everything new volunteers need to know about picking up and delivering meals.

“I’m very thankful for my volunteers that regularly do this for us and super thankful for anyone who’s able to give of their time,” says Willhelm. “It means the world to our participants.”

Brienne Green
Daily Press Editor

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