It wasn’t leukemia that nearly killed Ray Evans. It was hunger.
The 82-year-old Toronto resident credits Meals on Wheels with saving his life after a recent battle with cancer, when he was too weak to cook for himself. But a critical volunteer shortage this summer has put the food-delivery program in jeopardy, threatening service to seniors across the city.
“We are in red alert,” says Jessica Anderson, a communications manager at the Senior Peoples Resources in North Toronto.
The organization has calculated that without more drivers it will be unable to serve as many as 100 seniors in need, many of whom cannot cook or shop for their own food.
“The people who make it run are our volunteers,” Ms. Anderson says, adding that the organization is 10 helpers shy of its typical 100-strong roster.
She says driver shortages are common during the summer vacation period, but adds that this year is worse than usual. The organization is not alone in calling for help, with Meals on Wheels programs around the city advertising similar volunteer positions.
Ms. Anderson cannot explain the unexpected drop.
Last year, Senior Peoples Resources in North Toronto made 36,700 deliveries to more than 300 people. Ms. Anderson worries about how clients like Mr. Evans will be affected if the shortage continues.
It was 15 months ago that the lifelong Toronto citizen contracted leukemia and then shingles. He beat the cancer with chemotherapy but says drugs destroyed his appetite. He dropped 40 pounds in a matter of months and realized he was slowly starving to death.
“I was on my way out,” Mr. Evans says. “I didn’t want to eat.”
He explains he had no family to help with cooking, and whenever he did force himself to make something, the act of preparing food would tire him too much to eat once it was ready.
Soon, his clothes were too large to wear. His doctor began to worry and contacted the Meals on Wheels organizers.
“I thought I could look after myself,” Mr. Evans says. When someone from Ms. Anderson’s organization called, he told them not worry – that he was still all right.
“I found out a month later that I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I had to call them [back].”
He started with five deliveries per week, and as his weight gradually returned he dropped down to three weekly visits.
Mr. Evans says the food is “not gourmet,” but it is nutritious and varied, with offerings like pasta or fish and chips, accompanied by soup and dessert. Most important, he says, “it’ll keep you alive.”
Mr. Evans still has little appetite, but he is mobile again, and uses transit to do his own shopping. He says he is not active in the seniors community though.
“To be honest with you, I still think they’re too old for me,” he says, laughing.
Carolyn Knight has volunteered with the Meals on Wheels program for 11/2 years, making deliveries on the weekend.
“It’s very heartwarming,” she says. “It’s just the most beautiful start to my Sunday.”
Volunteers work at least one route per week between 10:30 and 12:30, and are required to have a driver’s licence and access to a car. Mileage is repaid by the program.
Ms. Knight, 50, jokes that one side benefit of working with seniors is that you are always the youngest person in the room.
“Most of them are so happy to see you,” she said. “I think I get more out of it than they do.”
Anyone wishing to volunteer can call Senior Peoples’ Resources in North Toronto at 416-481-6411, or email firstname.lastname@example.org