From delivering hot meals to sorting canned goods to calling bingo, East Valley nonprofit agencies are running ragged trying to make up for a shortage of volunteers.
Nonprofit agencies, such as senior centers and food banks, rely on volunteers to achieve their missions, and summertime hits them hard. Snowbirds fly home and other volunteers take vacations, leaving dozens of jobs unfilled and the East Valley’s needy behind.
"People don’t think that there are hungry people in the summer," said Marla Giarratano of United Food Bank in Mesa. "But hunger never goes away."
The Concord Senior Center relies on 15 volunteers to help deliver 215 meals a day along 10 separate routes in north Tempe and south Scottsdale. Half of those volunteers have been lost to the summer. That’s left people such as program director Susan Ruffini and Sue Ringler, director of operations for the Tempe Community Action Agency which oversees the home-delivered meals program, driving routes to help bridge the gap.
It’s the same story at the Chandler Senior Center, which like Concord offers a hot meal to those who come to the center and a delivered meal to those who can’t.
Five of the Chandler center’s 13 volunteers have fled the Valley heat, and Nancy Ricketts is scrambling to get about 80 meals delivered each day.
As the volunteers will tell you, the pay is lousy but the benefits — including contributing to the well-being of another person — are incalculable.
"For many of them, we’re the only people they see all day," Ricketts said of the Chandler seniors who receive home-delivered meals. "The volunteers who do it, they really enjoy it. They get a lot out of it."
Elizabeth Byland has lived in her south Scottsdale home for 36 years. Three years ago she fell and broke her pelvis and two years ago, after 62 years of marriage, her husband died. She gave up driving and relied on her son and daughter-in-law, who live in the West Valley, and neighbors to help with shopping and other needs.
Then a neighbor told her she might be eligible for the Concord Senior Center’s home-delivered meals program. For $62 a month, Byland gets a hot meal delivered every weekday, complete with milk and dessert, and additional food on Friday to last through the weekend.
"Every month when I send in a check, I write a thank-you note," said Byland, 84. "The meals are really very, very good. Sometimes I have enough left over for supper."
For seniors such as Byland, the home-delivered meals and the twice-monthly house cleaning she receives through the agency help her to live independently. Drivers are trained to look for signs of illness or other trouble among their clients.
"My husband worried about what would happen to me if he were gone first," she said. "I really, really appreciate being able to stay in my home."
Volunteers can bring companions, including their children, along on deliveries. They’re also needed for other tasks at the senior centers.
Scottsdale’s Vista del Camino could use volunteers to accept and sort donations, including food and clothing.
"We have a tough time having our volunteer duties taken care of during the summer," said director Rita Koppinger. "It’s a chance to make a difference in people’s lives."
Volunteers put in an average of 3,000 hours per month at the food bank, and an additional 17 staff members would have to be hired to make up for the work they do.
Late summer is traditionally a time when food bank shelves go bare. The recent U.S. Postal Service food drive, however, brought in 157,000 pounds of food, and much of it still needs sorting.
"If any groups or organizations would like to come and sort food, we would really be happy to put them to work," Giarratano said. "We will provide a nice, cool place to work."