High gas prices put brakes on Meals On Wheels volunteers

STUART, Fla. - Every Tuesday morning, guys like Al, Butch, and Jon Hammer meet at the Council on Aging building in Stuart. They are Meals On Wheels drivers.

Tuesday, Jon talked about the 50-bucks he just spent on gas coming in. "It didn't fill it up all the way," chuckled John.

Around 10:30, the main Meals on Wheels van arrives with hundreds of hot meals on board.  More than 250 hot meals are delivered every day. Some clients also get food for breakfast the next morning.

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Volunteer coordinator Krista Kugaraj says they need 120 volunteers every week to cover the two dozen routes.

"Meals on Wheels would not exist without volunteer drivers," said Kugaraj.

The problem is as the price of gas continues to go up, the number of volunteers continues to go down.

Between exiting snowbirds and volunteers who said gas prices are forcing them to stop driving, this volunteer force is down about a quarter.

Kugaraj knows she's lucky to have a core group who've been helping out for at least a decade regardless of prices at the pump.

"Some of these people, it's the only visit they have all day long," said volunteer Butch Webb.

Al Kehlhem says the delivery crew is about the same age as those receiving the meals.
His first stop Tuesday was to see 79 year-old Natharlee Johnson, who is disabled.

"It's very important with the lunch... for him to help me out," said Johnson.

Johnson's daughter added it's a huge convenience when Kehlhem visits. Kehlhem said some people need more help than he does, so it's important to give back.

"Some people have family that see them, other people depend on the Meals on Wheels volunteer. It's their only contact with the outside world," said Kehlhem.

It's a connection that is more than just food for thought.

"It gives (the clients) a reason to wake up in morning to get ready for volunteer who's going to bring them their meal," said Kugaraj.

Kugaraj says they try to provide a small gas stipend to the volunteers, but they'll likely have to rely on staff to make a lot of the meal runs this summer. If you live in Martin County and would like to help, call 772-223-7829.

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