LAURINBURG – Tuesday was a pearl of a late-summer’s day, clear but not too hot, a pleasant northeast breeze blowing gently as Bill Campbell steered his motorized wheelchair the one mile from his home to the city’s Senior Nutrition Center, a regular weekday trip for Campbell for the past 25 years.
Except in inclement weather, when his wife drives him, the 85-year-old amputee uses his own set of wheels to get to Scotland County’s Meals on Wheels program, which works out of a unit in the MacIntosh Apartments complex near the intersection of Lytch and Melton streets.
Greeting him by name at the screen door, just as she has for almost 15 years, is Eloise Walden, the on-site Meals on Wheels volunteer coordinator. Behind her, Frank Moore, a 12-year program volunteer, reaches around to shake Campbell’s hand.
“I like coming down here,’’ said Campbell, a husky, neatly dressed man sitting ramrod straight. “I can pay bingo and other games. We have group exercises sometimes. And I like to watch the game shows,’’ pointing to a television turned on in a far corner of the dining room.
“The food here is always hot,’’ he said. “My favorite is chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy and any kind of beans.’’
Tuesday turned out to be his lucky day, because that’s exactly what was on the menu.
“It’s a good program,’’ Walden said. “Many of these elderly people live alone and, for them, this is the only nurturing and nourishing human contact they might get all day.’’
Not so for Campbell, who lives with his wife, Juanita. She is a program volunteer herself, one of a shrinking number who coordinate to deliver a hot lunch to 23 older Scotland County residents every Monday through Friday.
“We need more volunteers,’’ lamented Walden, a native New Yorker who spent her childhood summers with relatives in the Laurinburg area. She retired from the Chase-Manhatten Bank’s foreign currency exchange division and decided to leave the Big Apple for the Tar Heel State in 1996, and bought a house in Laurinburg.
Like Walden, many of the volunteers are as old as the clients they help feed, sometimes older. For instance, Moore, a U.S. Postal Service retiree, is 81. Peggy MacIntosh, who volunteers to deliver lunches once a week, is 91.
Of the 29 persons enrolled in Meals on Wheels in Scotland County, only six of those typically come to the Seniors Nutrition Center to eat lunch, which means 23 lunches must be delivered on two different routes five days a week. Sometimes, on a day when a delivery may not be possible, they get to the center, one way or another.
The kitchen screen door slams. In walks Thomas Fowler, who has taken the SCAT bus, which stops at the curb just outside.
“I don’t want my picture in the paper,’’ he cautions, warily eying the reporter with a camera.
Walden hugs him, then hands over two packets, one the hot chicken plate and the other a beverage package containing milk and juice. He thanks her, turns and walks back out.
“Check today’s Laurinburg Exchange,’’ she advises the reporter. “See there, that’s one that used to come in almost every day and I won’t be seeing her anymore, God bless her.’’
She indicated an obituary for Beatrice Hudson Currie, 94. Another recently deceased client, Walden offered, is Sally Graham.
“When she started getting lunches from us 10 years ago, she would walk from her house to the center most days, not quite a mile,’’ Walden said. “The last few years, though, her daughter had to bring her.’’
When Graham died last week, she was 109.
The kitchen door slams again. It’s James McLean, a one-year volunteer. He drops off the two insulated bags carried by each delivery volunteer, one for hot stuff and the other for cold. He then signs the daily log that records the name and address of each stop, a program requirement.
Like regular ambulance service and many other everyday social assets most people take for granted, Meals on Wheels is an outgrowth of war. It began in World War II, when volunteer nurses would use baby carriages to transport hot meals to British Army troops at the front. It began in the United States in 1954, when volunteers in Philadelphia began taking hot meals to home-bound senior citizens who otherwise might not get a hot meal in the middle of the day.
Scotland County’s program is administered through a contract with the Lumber River Council of Governments office in Pembroke. Now known nationally as the Meals On Wheels Association of America, it started getting federal funds in 1972, as part of the Older Americans Act.
As Walden and Moore began portioning out meals to serve in the center’s dining room, “served promptly at 11 a.m.’’ a posted sign advises, two more volunteers return after dropping off meals: Carthina McLean and Dosha Hines. The two women exchange a lively, laughing banter with Walden as they leave, Walden following them to the door.
Moments later, 87-year-old Louis McIver saunters in, beats his chest in mock barbarity, punches the air with a right uppercut and bellows, “I feel good!’’
McIver started coming to Laurinburg’s Meals on Wheels program 40 years ago, when he’d bring his late mother. She passed away and he gradually aged into program eligibility himself at 60.
“When I started bringing my mama, the meals were served out of a church, and it’s moved three times since then,’’ he said. “This is the fourth location.’’
He steps to a door leading from the brightly lit and very clean kitchen into the dining room, where several people are already waiting to be served lunch.
“Hello, d’ere, ma brotha!’’ he says loudly from the door, addressing Campbell, who is sitting next to Edna Purvis, a 20-year program participant. Campbell and Purvis laugh loudly and exchange warm greetings with McIver.
The three are seated with three others at two long cafeteria tables in molded plastic chair. Each table is centered with a paper doily and a vase containing an artificial red carnation and a U.S. flag. Colorful nutrition posters are neatly mounted on each wall, along with a chalk board, a bulletin board and a corner tableau of small photographs, a gallery of deceased Scotland County Meals on Wheels patrons.
The boisterous conversation suddenly dies away and all heads are bowed. In a commanding sonorous voice, Campbell suddenly begins leading a sing-song blessing, all joining in unison: “God is great, God is good; let us thank him for our food. By His hands we all are fed, thank you Lord for our daily bread…’’
Raising his head, Campbell regards the uplifted faces, smiles broadly, claps his hands together and exclaims, “OK. Let’s eat.’’
Persons wishing to volunteer for the Scotland County Meals on Wheels program should call Eloise Walden at 910-276-3318 during weekday mornings, or call the Lumber River Council of Governments in Pembroke at 910-272-5055. Further information on the national program can be found at www.mowaa.org.