A Meal – and So Much More

Oct 28, 2020

On weekdays between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., you will see a steady stream of face-masked seniors descending on the Blue Island Salvation Army Corps Community Center. The size of the crowd depends on what’s on the menu that day.

“For pot roast, we’ll get 100. For fish, closer to 60,” said Lynda Mendoza, the volunteer who coordinates the senior lunch program at the corps. The meals are provided through a state-run program called Age Options, which provides residents 60 and older a hot meal for a suggested donation of $2. Those who can’t pay are fed anyway. Meals are prepared on site by Ty, a professional chef, and Lynda distributes a printed list of the month’s menu.

Before COVID-19, the seniors would enjoy the meal on linen tablecloths with a soundtrack of happy chatter throughout the room. These days, the conversations are quick – mostly a face mask-muffled “thank-you” and “God bless you” – before the meals are carted home in Styrofoam containers. Make no mistake, the seniors are no less grateful.

Gratitude for Smiling Faces

For Mary and Federico Lopez, a local couple in their upper 80s, picking up lunch at the Blue Island corps is part of their daily routine. In fact, with the health concerns for people their age during the pandemic, it’s practically the only place they go these days.

Mary, whose favorite meal is the barbeque ribs, says she appreciates how kind and generous the staff and volunteers are. “Words can’t explain how grateful I am,” she said.

Patty, who turns 68 on November 1, praised the “wonderful lunches, oh my goodness.” Her favorites include the meatloaf and spaghetti. Even with the to-go format, she said the lunch program is part of her daily existence. “I need to see the smiling faces,” she said. “It means so much.” Even when they're covered by masks.

In addition to the fancy lunches, the seniors used to enjoy monthly parties to celebrate the birthdays in the group. Lynda would pass a red kettle at the lunches and those who could contribute a little money did. That collection funded the treats and entertainment for the next party. Lynda, a pro at making a dollar stretch, would buy and freeze sheet cakes before each party, get decorations at thrift stories, and hit up local schools for musical entertainment.

Patty also fondly remembers the cooking demonstrations, chess games, Zumba classes, and Bible studies. All the senior programs offered stimulation and camaraderie. And all of that has had to cease due to the pandemic. Lynda said she ran across some photos of past parties recently and it broke her heart. So, she decided to get a little creative.

Creativity in the Time of COVID

First, Lynda remembered that when her husband volunteered with Meals on Wheels they would put puzzles in with the meals, and soon she was looking for word searches and devotionals to tuck into the lunch bags. “Something to keep the seniors engaged,” Lynda said.

Roger, a 75-year-old who frequents the lunch program three-to-five times a week and considers the spaghetti his favorite, says he enjoys doing the word searches. He likes the “mind stimulation” and appreciated the information about participating in the census and voting that Lynda also included with the lunches.

Lynda also worked as an ambassador for the census and received lots of promotional items such as packets of tissues, face masks, hand sanitizer, and candy. She started putting these items in gift bags for the seniors, as well as donated items and things she picked up at the dollar store. Nicer items she crafted into a fancy gift basket she’d raffle off to one winner each month, the recipient thrilled by a rare fun surprise in a time of such sameness. 

Patty said she appreciates the extra touches. “To me, it’s the feeling of not being thrown to the wayside,” she said. “Somebody cares. I’m so impressed with all the kindness.”

Lynda, in turn, is impressed with the seniors’ care for each other and their creativity in finding ways to stay connected. She watches seniors pick up meals for those who can’t leave home and watches others pull their cars near each other in the corps parking lot, rolling down their windows, and enjoying the gift of in-person conversation. “One woman whose husband has dementia picks up the meal here and they eat it in their van because she just needs to get out of the house,” Lynda said.

“This program is really special,” Lynda said, referring to both the pre- and during-pandemic versions of the seniors programming at the Blue Island corps. The seniors clearly agree. “It saved our lives, really,” said Mary.

Roger said he greatly appreciates the program’s volunteers. “When they say, ‘God bless you,’ when I pick up meals, it’s heartfelt. You can tell they mean it,” he said. “This is people of faith coming together and serving those in need. This is what the Lord would want us to do.”

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