Once-a-week volunteer training has expanded to five days a week to serve even more individuals than usual.

Forced by the coronavirus to shutter 40 dining centers feeding about 1,000 daily, LifeCare Alliance has quickly pivoted to make sure those senior citizens still get meals. 

“They do need these meals; it’s just a little harder to manage it,” says Chuck Gehring, LifeCare's CEO. Fortunately, the nonprofit has a model in place it could rely on: Meals-on-Wheels. 

Now, the alliance is delivering its dining-center meals to each individual’s home—800 of the 1,000 so far—by expanding its Meals-on-Wheels program.

That program already was providing 5,000 meals a day in Franklin, Madison, Champaign, Logan and Marion counties, Gehring says. 

The new effort has been possible because of the many volunteers who have stepped up in the past two weeks. Gehring, who was Columbus CEO's Executive of the Year honoree in this year's Healthcare Achievement Awards, said 10 to 20 people per day are offering to volunteer, so many that LifeCare has expanded its once-a-week volunteer training to five days a week.

“People are at home, and this whole thing is a shock to their system and they want to help,” Gehring says. 

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Volunteers handle about 70 percent of the daily Meals-on-Wheels deliveries from LifeCare during the week, and 100 percent on the weekends. LifeCare staff handle the rest. 

LifeCare also has added about 500 Meals-on-Wheels clients because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gehring says. Those include senior citizens, developmentally disabled individuals whose day programs have shut down and people with HIV and AIDS. About 50 people a day are calling and asking to be added to the program, he says.

Another LifeCare program that had to be temporarily reinvented is Groceries-To-Go, a food pantry for people with cancer and their families. About 1,000 families use the service and about one-fourth of them normally picked up the food themselves; food was delivered to the rest. Now, volunteers are delivering almost all the food, Gehring says, to keep everyone safe.

Safety and social distancing also are the mantra for staff and volunteers who are delivering meals or food. Rather than waiting for clients at their door, staff and volunteers can leave meals or food at doors and walk a few feet away as they make sure clients comes to the door. 

Deliveries for people who are bed-bound, however, still are being handed off in person. 

Volunteer Mike Copella of Upper Arlington says he’ll continue to deliver meals once a week for LifeCare despite the coronavirus. 

“At this point I have confidence in the changes that have been made,” says Copella, 40. “These people are the ones who are the most at need and the need is even greater now.”

Copella has been delivering meals for 12 years, usually during his Wednesday lunch break from work as managing director for real estate company CBRE’s Columbus operation.

“It helps keep me grounded and humble,” he says. “I really enjoy knowing I made a difference and it’s great to turn my phone off once a week and just help someone else.”

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Gehring says LifeCare continues to need additional volunteers as well as donations to continue its work. Without additional funding, he estimates the organization will fall about $1 million short this year, in part because of the coronavirus. 

He said the organization recently received a large grant from the Columbus Foundation that will help.

“But we’re calling our donors now.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.