Hunger drains you, and it doesn't care who you are, Darin Viergutz says, pausing a second as he works in the Meals on Wheels of Lancaster kitchen on Manheim Pike.
"When you feed somebody, it's not just about health," he says. "You feed their soul and their spirit."
Viergutz sees his volunteering at Meals on Wheels as a calling. These days, it's a crucial one, as Meals on Wheels, like food-related nonprofits nationwide, sees a surge of hunger in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak and the economic dislocation it has led to.
The organization is delivering meals to an average of 410 people per day, according to acting executive director Feleen Nancarvis. That's up 17% over its pace prior to Covid-19. (Previously, Meals on Wheels also provided meals at an adult day center and a school; those programs had to be suspended when Lancaster County went under Pennsylvania's stay-at-home order.)
Clients range in age from 24 to 102; the average is 78. Last year, the nonprofit fed roughly 1,000 individuals.
It's easily on track to surpass that in 2020, Nancarvis said. But to do so, like thousands of organizations affected by the pandemic, it had to make major adjustments.
Previously, most Meals on Wheels volunteers had been retirees, who can no longer serve due to the higher risk to them from Covid-19. The program also relied on individuals with disabilities, whose services were provided through programs that have been shut down for now due to Covid-19 safety concerns.
Overnight, Meals on Wheels was short-staffed and close to 50 delivery routes had no drivers. But the community rose to the challenge and then some, Nancarvis said. Over four weeks, in an unprecedented effort, Meals-on-Wheels recruited and trained well over 200 new volunteers.
It also swiftly retooled its kitchen operations around Covid-19 best practices. Everyone wears masks; surfaces cleaned rigorously before are scrubbed even more frequently now.
GIven all the turmoil, having reliable veteran volunteers like Viergutz in the mix has been a godsend, Nancarvis said.
"He has been instrumental to our kitchen operations," she said.
Viergutz started at Meals on Wheels last year. He usually puts in four hours a day, four days a week, helping today's meals get out the door and readying tomorrow's.
"I enjoy helping people," he said.
Five years ago, Viergutz was stricken with a severe neurological disorder that put him in the hospital for nearly three months. He had to give up his job as director of operations for a marketing firm, and he still deals with ongoing physical symptoms, including peripheral neuropathy and problems with weakness and balance.
His role at Meals on Wheels, he said, serves as a "happy distraction" from the travails of his ailment. In doing his part, he said he feels he's been given the opportunity "to revisit who I always was."
Now more than ever, the nonprofit is a crucial link in people's lives, he said.
Indeed, each delivery is also a safety check. Volunteers wait for recipients to come to their doors; these days, to ensure social distancing, they stand back at least 6 feet after they ring or knock. If someone doesn't respond to the initial knock or a follow-up call, an emergency contact person is notified.
For some clients, the delivery may be their only in-person encounter that day with another human being.
Viergutz said he often goes home and collapses from exhaustion. But his quiet joy at helping out is palpable.
"My Dad always used to say, 'Put yourself in someone else's shoes,'" he said. "Try to understand what they're going through. ... Everybody has a story."
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