Meals on Wheels offers more than food to those in need.

For some, enrollment in the program means human contact a few times a week when visits are slowing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The valuable nutrition supplied can be a lifesaver, but so can the personal visits drivers often make to their clients.

Stella Bernhard, a 92-year-old resident of Stella, learned that recently when driver Jessica Guesno of Cape Carteret paid a visit and noticed a particularly nasty gash on her head. Miss Stella assured her she was fine, but Guesno wasn’t convinced.

“(The blood) was extremely noticeable,” Guesno said. “It literally looked like it just happened. She was sitting outside in her same spot like usual, in her usual chair with her radio playing and everything. She said she was fine, but she didn’t have any family that lived nearby so I called Bob and asked what I should do.”

Bob Lenthall is supervisor for the Meals on Wheels program that operates as part of the White Oak Ecumenical Outreach Ministries of Swansboro.

Lenthall called Miss Stella’s daughter, Lois Wesphall of Burbank, Calif., and the pair opted to call in a wellness check from the Western Carteret Fire and EMS Department. Lenthall also drove to Miss Stella’s house to provide assistance.

“I got there about a minute before the EMS did and the gash on her head was still sizable,” Lenthall said. “As soon as they came in, they told her ‘Miss Stella we need to get you to the hospital right away, we can see your skull.’”

The paramedics took a photo of the injury and showed it to Miss Stella, who agreed to be transported to Carteret Health Care in Morehead City, and then to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville when the injury was deemed too severe. The head wound required stitches and there were also broken vertebrae from the fall. Miss Stella has since moved in with her daughter Colleen Bernhard of Fair Haven, N.J., for at least the duration of her recovery.

“She’s doing OK,” Wesphall said. “Her spirit is good. She’ll have to wear a collar, between three weeks and six months depending on how she recovers, but all is well. I can’t say enough good things about that organization.”

During the medical assessment, one of Miss Stella’s biggest concerns about leaving was her Akita, Lucky. When she was transported in the ambulance, the 13-year-old dog followed the vehicle for a way before disappearing into the woods behind the property. Lenthall stayed behind and rounded him up.

“The dog followed her the entire time, while the ambulance sat in the driveway and then when it drove away,” he said. “When he went into the woods, I tried to follow and call him back, but he wouldn’t come. So, I wound up finding her keys and getting into her vehicle and got the leash. I got the dog out of the woods and back into the home.”

When Lenthall reached out to Wesphall again, the two also discovered they were both from the Buffalo, N.Y., area and had graduated a year apart from Sweet Home High School in Amherst.

“I couldn’t believe we were from the same place,” Wesphall said. “It’s a small world. I’m glad he was there to help.”

Wesphall, who visited Miss Stella in July, spoke to her on the phone shortly after the injury.

“She said she had fallen, but that she was OK and the bleeding had stopped,” she said. “She was not giving us the whole story. I had a feeling she was downplaying it, so I’m glad they called.”

In Miss Stella’s case, the Meals on Wheels service was a lifesaver. She had only been with the program for three months, and even that was difficult to make happen considering her independent nature.

“She really didn’t want to do it,” Wesphall said. “I had to push her, but I knew we needed someone to kind of keep an eye on her. We all live in different places around the country and she’s out here alone.”

That’s the idea for Lenthall and his drivers, who he says get as much out of the program as the clients themselves.

“When you go to someone’s home and you know they’re by themselves and you’re bringing them food, it means something,” Lenthall said. “It’s more than just a meal delivered. It’s a wellness check, so to speak, where someone at least is putting eyes on you and saying, ‘Hi’ and ‘Good morning.’ The driver might be the only person the client will see all week.”

Lenthall also praised Guesno’s sharp observation and instinct to make an extra effort to ensure Miss Stella’s safety.

“Sometimes a driver might have dropped a meal off and just said, ‘OK’ and left, but I’m so glad she took that extra step,” he said. “They said had (Miss Stella) not sought medical attention, something bad could have happened.

Lenthall said drivers and clients form a rapport, some so strong that changing routes becomes a logistical challenge.

“The drivers don’t want to take those couple of people off their route,” he said. “That driver would rather spend two hours doing their route just because they enjoy seeing those clients.”

Guesno started as a driver in November when she was looking for a community service opportunity to do with her 11-year-old son, Alan.

“You can’t help but form relationships with them,” she said. “They’re all very social and most of them don’t see anyone else between drivers. People think it’s just a meal, but it’s so much more. We tend to forget our seniors, so I enjoy talking to them and giving them that social interaction. My son has enjoyed it, too. My son keeps asking, ‘When are we going to see Mr. Smitty?’”

Lenthall was a driver for five years and has been with the White Oak Ecumenical Outreach Meals for Wheels program for seven. He currently has 30 drivers for roughly 50 clients, so finding help isn’t necessarily an issue. However, funding for the all-volunteer program which costs approximately $8,000 a month to run, is a constant problem.

“We run our program at a deficit every single month, about $4,000. It costs us $8,000 to run the program per month, and we only get back $4,000 usually. It’s not a free program, nor is it federally or state-funded, so if you have the ability to pay or make a donation to cover our cost, it’s very helpful. Sometimes, people can’t do that so we try to work something out.”

The cost is $7 per meal for the program, which is for more than just a specifically elderly demographic.

“This program was originally put in for elderly shut-ins, but the criteria has changed,” Lenthall said. “If you’re in need, we’ll help you.”

The Meals on Wheels program provides meals for those unable to feed themselves, whether through a decline in abilities or through injury. The nationwide program currently helps nearly 2.4 million seniors annually with 220 million meals.

To volunteer or make a donation, call Lenthall at (910) 352-8511.

Email Zack Nally at zack@thenewstimes.com.

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