Unpaid but essential

By The Active Age | April 23, 2020

Photo by Fernando Salazar Valerie Phillips delivers to a Meals on Wheels client.

Sara Kelly and a friend delivered fresh-baked bread in Harvey County.

Courtesy photos
Daryl Burnham delivered Meals on Wheels and Linda Lumber sewed masks during the pandemic.

Courtesy photo
Schowalter Villa resident Gary Jones planted seeds to celebrate the beginning of spring.

Normally this time of year, Jim Unruh would be puttering around the house, traveling with his wife or working part-time for a funeral home.

“Just a very relaxing lifestyle,” he says.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrust him into a new role: Two mornings a week, the retired banker volunteers to shop for and deliver groceries to Wichitans who are either homebound or have difficulty getting out. The Roving Pantry program is run by Senior Services, Inc., where a good friend of the Unruhs works. 

“She happened to mention that they were short on help during this virus situation,” Unruh said. “I thought I might just help out temporarily.”

Unruh is one of many area residents who are giving their time during the crisis. Health officials have said it’s critical that the vast majority of people abide by stay-at-home orders and observe social distancing requirements in order to defeat the pandemic.

“Our seniors seem to be doing a very good job of exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, which is staying home,” said Crystal Noles, director of the Butler County Department on Aging.

Yet it’s clear that many volunteer jobs are as essential as many that come with a paycheck. Exemptions to Gov. Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order include shopping for food and caring for the vulnerable. Unruh generally delivers groceries to 10 to 20 people every Monday and Thursday.

“They’re so very thankful that we’re delivering this service because they can’t get out,” he said.

Volunteer help is taking many forms. After Newton firefighters put out word that they had received a huge donation of flour, a group of women from Meridian Mennonite Church in Hesston offered to put their baking skills to work. Then Newton resident Sara Kelly got involved. “They were happy to make the bread, but not sure how to get it distributed,” she said. Kelly got busy through social media and other connections and was soon taking orders from the community. “Fresh-baked bread fills more than a sustenance need—it warms the heart,” Kelly said. “The ladies at the church are great to work with. They just ask me how many loaves to make.”

The volunteers also received a large donation of yeast from Gillespie Meats.

“There may be more things happening as a result,” Kelly said. “The Farmers Market in Newton has reached out and there’s talk of how we can create a community garden for the summer. As the weather gets warmer, who knows what will happen?”

In Butler County as elsewhere, many places where RSVP members would normally volunteer closed. Nevertheless, Noles said, “A lot of our volunteers are continuing to volunteer, delivering Meals on Wheels, still doing our freezer meal program and doing shopping for seniors. They’ve gotten pretty creative.  A lot will come and do shopping during stores’ senior hours.”

Retired pipefitter Daryl Burnham has been delivering Meals on Wheels in El Dorado five days a week. He said he’s happy to step in during the pandemic for older volunteers who’ve been doing it for “18, 20 years.” Burnham said he had “no hesitation” about continuing to deliver meals, since many people he delivers to are isolated and unlikely to be infected. However, he acknowledged being more wary than usual. When he pulled into a QuikTrip and saw a car with Florida license plates, he admitted, “I didn’t go running in. I stayed in the car until they left.” Most of all, he’s proud to work alongside other RSVP volunteers and the staff at Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital, where the meals are prepared.

Numerous individuals and groups have been sewing masks for first responders, medical personnel, friends, family and others to wear. From sharing patterns and dusting off rusty sewing skills to locating suddenly scarce elastic and getting the masks sanitized, it’s been the ultimate crowd-sourced effort. “If we could do a thousand (masks), I’d be super thrilled, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if we did more,” said Jennie Benitez of Senior Services, which has been coordinating one of the mask-making teams.

Volunteers have also signed up for RSVP’s Caring Caller program, in which they telephone homebound residents to check on their well-being. “It’s just to provide companionship so folks  don’t get so lonely,” Benitez said. “With everything going on, there’s been a really big push to check on people’s mental health and provide that comfort and support.” 

Volunteers who are out in the public say they are taking precautions to avoid endangering themselves or anyone else.

Retired school principal Valerie Phillips, who delivers Meals on Wheels three days a week in Wichita, doesn’t wear a mask but she does “wash the heck out of my hands, wear gloves and sanitize. I’ve gotta have the cleanest steering wheel and door handle. They are so sanitized it’s not even funny.”

“I want (Meals on Wheels clients) to be safe. I feel very protective of them.”

Some of those clients put a cooler or chair outside their doors where Phillips places the food. Others want to banter.

“One guy said, ‘Where’s your mask?’ I just go, ‘Where’s your mask?’ He said, ‘I’m too mean to wear a mask.”

Phillips never considered giving up her routes, which vary most days. She enjoys it too much.

“It’s fun to see the back roads and learn about your city,” she said. “It sounds crazy.”

Then there are the folks she delivers the meals to.

“Man, I get blessed a whole lot every time I take them food,” she said. “I’m not sure who needs who more.”