A catalyst for compassion

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January 30, 2012
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
Northeast Dinner Bell expanding meal delivery program

Volunteers from Northeast Dinner Bell bring more than 100 meals to the homebound every weekday, and the service is expanding into Southeast Minneapolis to replace the shuttered Meals on Wheels branch there.

“It’s just as easy to send an extra 10 or 20 meals,” said Executive Director Eileen Hafften. “And we want to find more people who need help.”

The organization is taking on more delivery routes at a time when its own future base is uncertain. The Trinity United Methodist Church building at 2511 Taylor St. NE, where the Dinner Bell has been headquartered for 38 years, is for sale. The declining Trinity congregation merged with another church last year, and Dinner Bell staff are still packing meals in a quiet hallway in the basement.

“We’re looking for a new home,” Hafften said.

The organization has one big bonus on its side — it has 250 loyal volunteers, with at least half of them delivering every week. The one-hour route fits neatly into Northeast employee lunch breaks, and many older volunteers have been there for decades. Some deliver into their 70s and 80s, joking that they should be the ones receiving meals, not the other way around.

“We had one driver who turned 90 before he quit delivering meals,” said Ardie Morrissette, an administrative assistant. “It’s part of their life; this is what they do. This is one way they can give back.”

On a recent weekday, Meal Coordinator Jeff Aronen laid out cookies for volunteers returning from their rounds. He keeps a second job building furniture and cabinets, and he likes the social aspect of Meals on Wheels.

“It’s not going to fill my bank account, but it fills my heart,” he said.

Volunteers that day included Carol and Corky LaBelle, who have delivered meals for 10 years, even now while Corky undergoes treatment for cancer. They drive with their grandkids, and Carol said clients are always thrilled to see Travis, age 10, at their doorsteps.

“Here is yuppie Northeast,” said Corky, as he drove past the strip of businesses along Johnson Street. Carol explained that they grew up in Northeast, and the strip used to be a fun hangout for them with a drug store, fountain and the Hollywood Theater.

“It’s nice to give to the people you’ve grown up around. ... There is my [old] house,” she said as they rode past 30th and Johnson.

The Dinner Bell has a long history in Northeast. It started in the summer of 1973, when volunteers collected meals from the Downtown hospital and packed them in the Trinity parking lot. It’s one of the few Meals on Wheels branches that operates independently, with its own caterer and its own Board of Directors.

Eileen said Northeast Dinner Bell decided to take over the Southeast routes simply because it can handle the expansion, which amounts to about 25 meals.

Southeast Meals on Wheels is closing down because it is losing its headquarters and it is serving fewer meals.

“In Southeast Minneapolis, a lot of living facilities are converted to student housing,” said Pat Rowan, executive director of Meals on Wheels. “And if you look at the 2010 census data, there are less seniors in Minneapolis now than there were in 2000. Especially in that area.”

At its peak, Northeast Dinner Bell delivered 200 meals a day in the 1990s, double the meals given today.

“Seniors aren’t seniors anymore,” Hafften said. “They are busy. They are exercising, they’re healthier, and they have good medicine.”

Nevertheless, Hafften wants to seek out more homebound clients who could use a meal service — young people with MS, people recovering from injuries, or the homebound elderly who could use something more nutritious than a daily can of soup.

Volunteers are often the first alarm bell that an elderly client might be in trouble. Hafften said she personally received a call when a Meals on Wheels driver checked on  her own mother. Her mother looked terrible — she had a stroke, and didn’t realize it.

“Centuries ago, everybody lived together. It’s not like it used to be,” she said.

The Northeast Dinner Bell is looking for more volunteers. To increase awareness of the organization, staff visit farmers’ markets, and they send “Miss Hot Dish” to wave from a convertible in the Celebrate Northeast Parade. They even brought paper delivery bags to the Art-A-Whirl trolley last spring for riders to decorate.

Each year, Northeast Dinner Bell throws a music benefit called “Mission Nutrition,” which includes fun sponsors like Gastro non Grata, restaurants like Anchor Fish & Chips and Sen Yai Sen Lek, and a lineup of bands like The Mighty Mofos and Tea and Sympathy.

“Our federal funding keeps getting cut,” Hafften said. “Every year we’re a little bit in the hole.”

Aronen said he’s been impressed with the Northeast business community’s willingness to help with fundraising. Prior donors include Ghorka Palace, the Modern Café, Graco, Grumpy’s Northeast and Holy Land. Community Involvement Programs, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities, takes over a delivery route every single day.

“I’ve only received ‘no’ for an answer three times in four years,” Aronen said. “Everybody is willing to give what they can.”

For an upcoming fundraiser, Aronen is talking to comedy booker Rich Miller (comedian Dennis Miller’s brother) to gather a lineup of comedians to perform at the Acme Comedy Co., which has offered space for a future event.

The next Mission Nutrition is 4-7 p.m. March 10 at Grumpy’s Nordeast, 2200 4th St. NE.

“Three bands, oodles of raffle prizes, and food for a moderate cost,” Aronen said. “Last year’s Grumpy’ s event was a total blast.”

Brian Kelly, a longtime volunteer, said he likes to see the direct impact of his aid. At so many charities, he said, you feel like you cut a check and watch the money fly out a window, not knowing where it lands.

“It’s hard to find things to put your money or time into when you don’t know what the results are,” he said. “This has very immediate gratification. ... A lot of times, you are the only person they see from the outside world that day.”

One elderly client that always stuck in Kelly’s mind worked for a local military manufacturer, and told Kelly all about how the company did business with the government.

“Some of that stuff will never hit the history books,” Kelly said. “It taught me a great admiration and respect for elders in general.”

Aronen also said that working for Northeast Dinner Bell has given him a new appreciation for seniors. He remembers delivering to a client on oxygen. He figured he didn’t have much time left, and then watched in surprise as the man spent the next four years fighting for his life.

“You get the full picture of life,” he said.

Michelle Bruch covers Northeast for The Journal. Contact her at michellebruch82@gmail.com.