Dear Editor: Walking up to the Jackson County Senior Center, the calm, quiet, picturesque exterior might give the impression that not much was going on inside the building either. It was a bit sad to see empty benches and an unused walking trail on such a beautiful day. Seriously, the sun was shining, birds chirping, flowers blooming…it was perfect! Perfect except for a pandemic that was keeping the seniors citizens of Jackson County away from their beloved Center.

“They call us all the time asking when we will let them come back,” said Kathy Branyon. (Actually, I can’t remember if Kathy Branyon or Rita Reed made that statement. They both said the same things many times throughout our conversation, supporting each other’s comments and concerns. Their love and passion for the center and their senior citizen clients was obvious and overflowing.)

Kathy Branyon, director, met me just inside the door when I entered. She led me into the office of Rita Reed, assistant director/food services coordinator. This is where we all sat down and had an amazing conversation. My assignment was to get some quick info about their Meals on Wheels Program. I immediately realized that that wasn’t going to happen. There was just too much going on.

If you just want the brass tacks, here you go:

PrePandemic:

Meals served in-house: 90–100 per day (but ready to serve the 192 on their client list at any time)

Meals delivered: 67 per day

Current Pandemic:

Meals served in-house: 0

Meals delivered: 1,400 per week (13 routes all over Jackson County)

How do they manage it all? Team effort. All during the interview, senior center employees popped into Rita’s office verifying routes and double-checking supplies. County employees from other departments are being shifted around to help with deliveries. I asked how many cooks they had. Three. Just three. Three ladies to cook and process what became an unprecedented increase literally overnight. The same three hard working ladies that they have had all along. Now they are working harder. But they don’t complain.

Kathy explained that not all of their delivered meals are hot. Some are "shelf" meals and some are frozen. It just depends of what each client needs. And if those needs include picking up groceries or medications, they arrange for that, too. Well check phone calls (both sent and received) happen every single day.

Rita explained, “We love our seniors and we’re going to do what we have to do to take care of them.”

These ladies serve their community with their heart and soul. I know grammatically it should be "hearts and souls" but they are such a team, it’s hard to separate them. They truly act as one. “We have to be able to jump in and do whatever needs to be done. We all do a little bit of everything; we have to.” Although, Rita was quick to clarify that she’s willing to do anything except for Kathy’s money management job. Evidently Kathy is the queen of penny pinching, coupon cutting and bargain hunting. If there is a deal out there, Kathy will find it and make it work for her seniors.

I was starting to feel bad for taking up so much of their time when they obviously had a lot going on. But Kathy and Rita were gracious and agreed to give me a quick tour so I could get a couple of photos. Before we got back to the kitchen and food prep area, Kathy showed me another project they had taken on: crocheted "ear savers." Taking the lead from Wendy Weaver (warden Johnny Weaver’s wife), some senior volunteers had started crocheting small straps with a button on each end to secure the elastic loops around the back of a nurse’s or doctor’s head to save their raw ears. And in the center’s quilting room, another volunteer was busy sewing face masks.

When we did get to the kitchen, I wasn’t allowed to step inside because I wasn’t properly dressed but I was able to get a quick photo of two of the three ladies getting set up for the big rush of the day. Jennifer Angel and Cindy Jones were all smiles and had a wonderfully positive attitude. Over in the "meal assembly room" (what is normally the main dining hall) there were tables stacked high with canned soups and vegetables, peanut butter, chips, drinks, bread…enough to feed an army. Or a week’s worth of Jackson County’s seniors. Kathy and Rita also arrange to include "goodie bags" with the meals when they can, just little gifts of cheer for their clients, a small surprise to hopefully bring a smile to their faces and help them feel less isolated. Employees and volunteers were stationed all over the Center taking care of each stage of the process. It really was a team effort; everyone was all in.

I fulfilled my assignment. I got info on Meals on Wheels. But I also got so much more. When things are at a "new normal" I will go back to the Jackson County Senior Center and get photos of people walking along their beautiful track and sitting outside on their benches surrounded by flowers and inside enjoying one of their many activities (I hear their Christmas party lasts the entire month of December) or exercising in their on-site gym or intensely working on a quilt… Yeah, there’s so much more going on than "playing bingo’"... although I’ve been told they do that, too.

Sincerely,

Sloane Meyer

Jackson County public information officer

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