A beginner's guide to Meals on Wheels volunteering (and why it's so great)

This week Geraldine Carton attempted to ease her internal guilt by volunteering with a Meals on Wheels group in north Dublin. Featuring some hearty laughs and heartbreaking moments, this is how she got on.


When was the last time you volunteered for a charitable cause? Come on, have a think.

I asked myself this question recently and was horrified to realise I couldn't recall the last time I volunteered for a worthy cause. Sure, I donate to charity, and I often attend fundraising events, but when it comes to putting aside time to engage in charitable work, I am about as generous as Ebeneezer Scrooge.

With that in mind, I used this week’s “Beginner’s Guide” challenge as an opportunity to change my shameful volunteering track record, and join up with KARE Social Services to deliver Meals on Wheels to elderly individuals around north Dublin.

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"Every single week as the door was opened and the steam gushed out, someone would yell “Free facial, ladies!!” and the room would erupt into a chorus of hooting laughter."

Transition year memories

To start off, I should mention that I have volunteered for a Meals on Wheels group once before, except I was an awkward 16-year-old at the time. Volunteering was a compulsory part of my secondary school’s transition year program, and so for a few Saturday mornings throughout 2008, myself and my friend Alice showed up to a small community kitchen in Blackrock to help make hearty dinners for elderly people in the locality.

As far as I can I can remember, I spent much of that experience gawking the hurlyburly women who could mash potatoes and chop carrots faster than an industrial machine. In fact, apart from serving tea and biscuits, I don't think I was much help at all.

These women spent several mornings a week cooking meals for those who couldn’t do so themselves, and the light-hearted way in which they approached the work has forever cemented itself in my memory. In particular, I remember there was a giant steamer used to cook the potatoes, and every single week as the door was opened and the steam gushed out, someone would yell “Free facial, ladies!!” and the room would erupt into a chorus of hooting laughter. Every single week this happened, and the women never tired of it.

Wonderful humans with Dublin charm

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Flash forward to 2018, and the women I meet in the KARE Meals on Wheels (MoW) kitchen in Clontarf are much of the same ilk; wonderful humans with a real Dub charm, who are happy to volunteer their time in order to help the vulnerable people in their community; doing so with a laugh and a wisecrack whenever the opportunity arises.

It’s predominantly women who would in the MoW kitchens, with male volunteers generally preferring to deliver the food, as opposed to cook it. Catherine tells me how many individuals have been with the group for a large chunk of their adult life; the aforementioned Pauline has been working in the MOW kitchens for over twenty years. “I only meant to help out for a couple of weeks after my kids had started at school, but I’ve been here ever since! The team is just brilliant; they’d do anything for you.”

"In all her time organising and delivering Meals on Wheels dinners, Catherine says she has only ever encountered two requests for vegetarian meals."

Pauline’s experience seems to be on par with many of the volunteers; they arrive intending to help out here and there, and then they simply never stop. Catherine tells me about husband and wife duos who have been volunteering ever since they got married; of college students who do shifts in between lectures; of working professionals who cover sick drivers by coming in on their lunch breaks...

“God, I am an awful person.” I think, once again comparing my lack of volunteer activity to these do-gooders.

Food for thought

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The MoW dishes generally involve meat, vegetables and potatoes, accompanied by some variation of custard and cake dessert. The old-age trend of “Fish Friday” is also embraced by many, and gluten-free, diabetic and soft food meals are available, too.

In all her time organising and delivering Meals on Wheels dinners, Catherine says she has only ever encountered two requests for vegetarian meals. When I ask whether they ever get asked about vegan, paleo or ketogenic diets, she lets out a hearty laugh by the mere prospect of it. Although I chuckle too, I can’t help but feel sorry for future MoW volunteers, who are sure to have less straightforward dietary requirements when my generation starts requiring their own daily delivery of dinner down the line (although Deliveroo seems to be serving that function already)...

"Noleen mentions that sometimes the Meals on Wheels driver is the only person she meets in person for days at a time."

VIP chats

According to Catherine, the chats that the drivers have with service users are in many ways as important as the food delivery itself. “For example, one time a driver went to a certain individual's home as normal and notified us immediately when nobody answered the door. We were then able to contact the individual’s daughter, who had a key to her mother’s home and was able to get in to see what was happening. It turned out that her mother had tripped and suffered a terrible fall. Without our delivery, this poor woman could have been left lying on her kitchen floor for god knows how long.”

I meet a few service users along our route; some are quiet and shy, whilst others are full of beans. Noeleen is one such person.

The last on our route, Noeleen answers her door within mere seconds of us pressing the buzzer – she has clearly been expecting us. Noeleen knows all her drivers by name; there’s Debby on Monday, Muhammad on Tuesday, Sorcha on Wednesday, and she gushes about each one, before saying something that breaks my heart in two

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Noleen mentions that sometimes the Meals on Wheels driver is the only person she meets in person for days at a time. “My children are very busy and they try to visit as much as they can, but it’s just me otherwise, and sometimes this can be a bit lonely. This is why it’s great to have at least one thing to look forward to through the day, and sometimes the drivers might even come in for a cup of tea, which is always lovely.”

Converted

Hearing Noeleen say this is what converts me right on the spot; think about what someone like her would face if this service wasn’t available is too cruel to bear, and as we walk back to the van I vow that I will start to volunteer on a more regular basis before the year is out. Older people are incredibly vulnerable and they need to be supported. Whether it's in the form of a hot meal, or a 5-minute chat discussing the weather and the funky new walking stick they’ve just invested in, volunteering your time in this way is truly invaluable. 

If you’re interested in getting involved then check out the KARE website, where you can find out about volunteer opportunities in an area near you. After what I saw last week, this is one cause I can't recommend enough.

To see the video footage of Geraldine's Meals on Wheels experience, check out the InstaStory on her highlight reel.

Note: There is a Volunteer Centre in every county in Ireland so if you want to get involved and help your local community, see the website here for more information.

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