Meals on Wheels reduces staff; volunteers are angry

MIDDLEBURY — The decision to eliminate the job of Addison County coordinator for Meals on Wheels has some wondering if the program, which distributes meals along with a friendly dose of human contact to often homebound seniors, can function properly here.
Under financial pressure, the non-profit Age Well decided to replace the position, most recently held by Tracy Corbett, with existing personnel in their Essex Junction headquarters and a software program designed to automate many of the job’s responsibilities.
The move didn’t sit well with some local Meals on Wheels volunteers, who were notified of the decision on June 2. Several have already written letters to Age Well asking that they reconsider the change.
One such volunteer is Max Kraus of Middlebury, who has delivered meals to clients in Addison County for 12 years. According to Kraus, the volunteers were blindsided by the decision.
“(Tracy) is the heart of the whole thing. She is the person that inspires the volunteers, who cares about the clients,” he said. “I don’t think the program is going to be able to continue doing anything like it’s done before.”
Kraus said he and other volunteers are skeptical that the needs of the county can be met from the Essex Junction office. They believe that a coordinator with a more nuanced and intimate understanding of the county’s delivery system is necessary to the operation. He has also reached out to the county’s delegation to the state legislature for assistance.
Corbett did not respond to an email seeking more information.
Age Well CEO John Michael Hall defended the decision to eliminate the position, which he said was, in part, due to budgetary concerns. Over the last 10 years, inflation has risen by more than 20 percent, thus decreasing the buying power of Age Well’s dollars.
During that same decade, funding for each of the organization’s home-delivered meals decreased by 34 cents. In fiscal year 2016, 203 volunteers in Addison County delivered 38,379 free meals to 282 clients. Hall said the decision to eliminate the position was, in part, to maximize Age Well’s ability to provide those meals at the highest possible quality.
“We’re trying to figure out how to protect this program and run it as effectively and efficiently as possible so that if something changes in terms of government support for it, it doesn’t require us to interrupt the service for the people who depend on us,” he said.
For this fiscal year, Age Well’s budget is just over $6.3 million. Over $2.4 million (or 38 percent) of that budget is provided through the 1965 Older Americans Act, which funds social and nutrition services for people 60 and older.
Hall said, roughly speaking, another 35 to 40 percent of Age Well’s spending comes from the work it does related to Medicaid’s Choices for Care program, which supports individuals who require long-term care at home. The remaining 20 percent of Age Well’s budget comes from donations, fundraising and state reimbursement for running miscellaneous programs, such as support for refugees or individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
The funding that Age Well receives from the Older Americans Act supports a variety of programs, including in-home personal care, preventative health and wellness programs, and employment services and training. The largest portion of that funding is allocated to the Meals on Wheels program. However, according to Hall, this federal funding only covers roughly 30 percent of the cost of running the program. Making use of both fundraising initiatives and money that it receives from the state, Age Well is able to supplement that federal grant. Though clients who receive meals are not required to do so, they are asked to donate when they can.
Age Well currently manages close to 1,000 volunteers throughout Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties. They provide a range of services, from driving individuals to doctor’s appointments, to spending time with folks who may be socially isolated. Previously, all volunteers were managed from Age Well headquarters in Essex Junction, except those who delivered Meals on Wheels. Prior to the change, each county had its own volunteer coordinator.
“We became concerned, in the interest of trying to be smart about the finite government resources we have to run this program, whether we could continue to run five different volunteer programs,” Hall said. “We made a decision to consolidate the supervision, recruitment and the training of all those volunteers into our main program.”
Hall also said there were challenges to having only one individual responsible for coordinating volunteers in the county, and that weaving those programs together will allow for greater support should a staffer not be available on a given day.
“How do we avoid interrupting service to folks if our entire volunteer program is premised on the idea that (the coordinator) is the (only) one that is making the whole thing tick,” he said. “We’ve spent time trying to figure out how to create more back up and more redundancy so we don’t let people who receive meals down if one of our volunteers or folks out in the field isn’t available on a given day.”
This week, Age Well will also begin using a new software program called ServTracker, which Hall said is used by hundreds of organizations across the country to manage Meals on Wheels programs. He said this software will maximize the organization’s efficiency, allowing both clients and volunteers to adjust their delivery schedules and better communicate with the organization.
The use of ServTracker has sparked concern from volunteers, who, according to Kraus, worry that a software system will not be able to deal with the more personal aspects and challenges of coordinating volunteers within the county. In an email sent to state legislators, he argued that a software program or a “telephone call from afar” will not be able to shovel snow off a client’s roofs or “knit together a group of Addison County residents into a community of Meals on Wheels drivers and friends.”
Hall said he understands that volunteers are worried the organization is pulling out of Addison County. This is not the case, he said, pointing out that Age Well, formerly known as the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, or CVAA, has four employees who work out of a Middlebury office and deal with case management and wellness counseling. The organization also has a nutrition staffer based in Vergennes.
“Every day, (staffers) get in their cars and go out to visit people in their homes, many of (whom) are the same people we’re providing meals to,” Hall said. “Folks in the Middlebury office may be working with people on some other service, and they’ll realize (someone) may need (assistance), and they’ll put a call in to our office and ask if we can start bringing meals to that person.”
Age Well Chief Operating Officer Rachel Cummings said the organization does not exist in a vacuum, and that it works alongside many organizations, including Porter Medical Center and local nursing homes, to make sure Age Well stays involved in the community.
“Part of our culture here is making sure that leadership is out in the field, making sure that we’re not just behind our desks. I demand that of the folks who report to me,” Cummings said. “I know you can lose touch easily with the community and that doesn’t happen here.”
According to Kraus, many community members who volunteer have threatened to quit due to the changes.
“I have received an outpouring of concerns, expressions of sadness and statements by disaffected drivers of their intention to resign as drivers,” he wrote in the email to state legislators. “We read and see the results of disaffected citizens. We are now seeing how an insensitive bureaucracy creates this disaffection of the powerless who see their support system eroded by distant, well-meaning but misguided managers.” 

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