This story is part of the Tri-City News' Year in Review series.
Back in March, when the provincial government declared its first lockdown, seniors connected to Coquitlam’s two pavilions called on city staff to help.
Many members had visited Dogwood and Glen Pine pavilions daily to lunch and socialize, and they had trouble cooking at home or being alone under the new orders limiting physical interactions.
“We were inundated with calls,” remembered Debbie Clavelle, Coquitlam’s manager of community recreation. “Our phones were ringing off the hook.”
Concerned about their regimens and isolation, city staff brainstormed about how they could assist the city’s most frail population. They talked about the leftover meals from their St. Patrick’s Day events, and how those lunches could have gone to good use.
Within two weeks, city staff had a phone service in place to deliver frozen food packages to their members twice a week. “It was really about comfort,” Clavelle said. “They know the meals. It was a way to return to normalcy.”
Nine months on, the municipal team is being widely credited for providing 15,000 homemade meals to Tri-City seniors, with the help of about two dozen volunteers.
Their operation is a “well-oiled machine,” said Kayla Doucette, who coordinates the staff and volunteers for the 60 to 70 meal deliveries on Tuesdays and Fridays.
To date, the eldest person to receive a meal is 97 years old, Clavelle said.
IN THE KITCHEN
Whipping up the meals at the Dogwood kitchen are Dogwood cook Jill Skabar and Monica Hanser, who runs the Lemon Tree café at Glen Pine.
“It’s just been the two of us,” Hanser told the Tri-City News during an interview at Dogwood on Dec. 18. “We’ve got a couple of staff to help us with the washing up now.”
On weekdays, the duo come up with wholesome, affordable meal options such as shepherd’s pie and Salisbury steak — “meat and three veg,” Skabar said, adding, “It’s definitely not hospital food.”
“It’s healthy and tastes good,” said Hanser who showed the inside of a new freezer in the commercial kitchen packed with frozen meals.
Once the orders are in, the organizing begins according to postal code, Doucette said. Each volunteer driver is supplied a list, with instructions to delivery drivers on how to reach a recipient, and a fabric cooler bag filled with frozen meals.
These drivers — many of who are laid off or have reduced work hours during the pandemic — are the lifeline to Meals for Seniors, Clavelle said, noting city staff initially delivered the meals before the volunteers stepped in.
But there have also been external donors.
Damian Stanley, chair of the Smiling Creek elementary Parent Advisory Council who has been delivering seniors meals since August, offered $750 to the program on behalf of the Burke Mountain school to sponsor 100 dinners; the students also wrote letters to lift spirits.
“It was pretty overwhelming what they did,” Stanley said. “Our students played a leadership role during a difficult time, and they found different ways to fundraise during COVID.”
The community has also rallied, penning letters, and offering special treats to the most isolated seniors, and meal sponsorships: Before Remembrance Day, the city linked up with the legion branch so the public could buy meals for 120 veterans. “We had to cut it off because it was so well received,” Clavelle said.
Janet Wong, a new Coquitlam resident who left her financial services job this year to look after her husband, started deliveries in September after she joined the city’s Phone Buddies program to talk to seniors during the lockdown.
On Wong’s runs, she only has two or three deliveries so she can spend more time on the doorstep chatting with the most isolated elderly. Sometimes, Wong talks with them for up to 45 minutes, broaching topics from their mental wellbeing and family to politics and the city’s history.
“Many of them have challenges,” she said. “Their health is compromised or their husband is the caregiver or they have just been discharged from the hospital. They can’t cope by themselves. They feel alone. They feel sad.”
“It’s been a miserable year,” Wong continued, “but we want to send them a positive message that we are all in this together.”
There have been city council appearances, too, with Coun. Steve Kim volunteering and Mayor Richard Stewart making cameos.
The meal program “has meant the world to me,” said 43-year Coquitlam resident Elizabeth Thunstrom, one of Wong’s check-ins. “I look forward to her visits. They make my day.”
• To order a pavilion meal for delivery or curbside pick-up at Dogwood Pavilion (1655 Winslow Ave., Coquitlam), call 604-927-4386 or visit coquitlam.ca/meals (Meals for Seniors is closed during the winter break). The meals are $7.50 each and available to Tri-City residents ages 50 and older.
• To send a letter of kindness to a senior in the program, go to coquitlam.ca/volunteer.