Organization provides second-largest Meal-on-Wheels program and offers a variety of other healthcare services.

Organization provides second-largest Meal-on-Wheels program and offers a variety of other healthcare services.

Central Ohio has national bragging rights when it comes to food, fashion and college football. But it's also home to one of the largest Meals-on-Wheels programs in the country, serving 5,000 at-risk Ohioans in five counties with no waitlist. Local nonprofit LifeCare Alliance runs this program-and many others for 15,000 older and medically-challenged residents in 40 counties.

LifeCare Alliance helps clients remain independent and in their own homes and communities. President and CEO Charles (Chuck) Gehring says the organization has the most extensive services of its kind in the US.

"The assistant secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services noted nationally that the program they would like to see emulated, especially on the meal side, is ours," he says. The organization delivered 1.3 million meals in 2015 and saves government budgets about $500 million each year.

Ila Brown receives a hot meal at her home every day thanks to LifeCare Alliance.

"I'm 88 years old and I don't have to fix lunch every day-that's the biggest help for me because I don't get around very well," says Brown.

LifeCare Alliance was only the second in the nation to deliver Meals-on-Wheels, which remains its largest service. The agency also runs the Columbus Cancer Clinic, as well as wellness, immunization and foot care clinics. It offers visiting nurses, nutritional services, senior dining centers, groceries-to-go, pet care, home care and support for clients facing eviction and service shutoffs. Gehring estimates the organization keeps about 1,000 people out of homeless shelters each year.

"In many cities in the country, if you came out of a homeless situation or become homeless while in the hospital, a lot of hospitals will discharge you to a homeless shelter or camp. That doesn't happen in central Ohio," he says. LifeCare Alliance helps patients obtain meals and resources that are essential to their recovery.

Catherine Nelson Black, wife of Columbus Mayor Samuel Black, founded the agency in 1898 to "take care of those nobody else pays any attention to."

"I was really struck by that and clung to that," says Gehring, who joined the organization in 2001 as the first male and the first non-nurse president.

The organization has functioned as a district nursing office, ran a childcare camp that lowered infant mortality from 150 per 1,000 to five per 1,000 and filled roles later assumed by the health department and Red Cross.

"It was founded to take care of the problems of the day," says Gehring.

Addressing current problems now takes the form of serving seniors and the medically challenged with a "rich tapestry of social services." Gehring says as a result of LifeCare Alliance, thousands of Ohioans have returned home from nursing homes and clients average five days fewer in the hospital a year than the national average. "We keep them happy, healthy, in their own homes," he says.

Gehring emphasizes that his board does not believe it can turn people away for food and healthcare. The organization takes anyone, regardless of ability to pay. Ninety-eight percent of clients are below the federal poverty level and 70 percent live on less than $1,000 a month.

Board Chair Brian Tierney, executive vice president and chief financial officer of American Electric Power, says the value of LifeCare Alliance's work is two-pronged: It gives services and dignity to clients while it benefits society in terms of cost.

LifeCare Alliance served 10,000 clients in 2010 and 15,000 in 2015. Gehring says each adult able to stay in his or her home saves Ohio taxpayers $62,000 annually.

A Columbus native, Gehring brought an MBA and business experience to his CEO role. He is supported by a board representing companies such as American Electric Power, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, OhioHealth and Safelite AutoGlass.

"Chuck likes to say there is no mission without the money," says Tierney. "We take a businessperson's approach and we are flourishing when so many other nonprofits are struggling."

LifeCare Alliance looks beyond government funding to support its $20 million annual budget. Social enterprises such as its catering company add a for-profit element to the nonprofit. The organization also works to grow its endowment and seeks out mergers that centralize functions, reduce costs and improve quality, making it "bigger, faster, stronger, better," explains Gehring.

A strong emphasis on fundraising and volunteers is also key. LifeCare Alliance has 7,600 active volunteers in its database and is No. 1 in the country in terms of companies that adopt Meals-on-Wheels routes. Huntington Bank allows employees to deliver meals on their lunch hour and the seven daily routes adopted by Huntington employees translate to 200,000 delivered meals.

Mary Sterenberg is a freelance writer.