What started as a community project for the women's group at Second Presbyterian Church four decades ago has blossomed into an incorporated — and self-supported — enterprise that keeps as many as 200 Lexington shut-ins fed each week.
Marking the 40th anniversary of Meals on Wheels of Lexington, more than 100 volunteers gathered Sunday at Second Presbyterian, where it all began.
"Here we are 40 years later, and I think it's only a miracle," said Barbara Rahenkamp, who was among the founding group and served as a volunteer coordinator through 1974. "As anyone who has worked (in the program) knows, the people are so grateful that you feel like they gave you the privilege."
In fact, several of the original volunteer drivers still are delivering meals today, including Mary Preston and Trudy Patch.
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Patch, a retired piano teacher, takes turns driving with a partner every fourth Thursday to deliver a day's worth of food to as many as 14 clients. "It's been a great thing, something I can do to help other people," said Patch, 81, in a telephone interview. She couldn't attend Sunday's event.
Nancy Ehmann, Meals on Wheels of Lexington's president and CEO for the last 27 years, told the volunteers Sunday how privileged she was to be part of such "a special team."
Ehmann, 77, said as hard as it might be, she likely will be stepping down "shortly." That only underscores the need to refresh the ranks of volunteers to help coordinate routes, pack meals and deliver them Monday through Friday. The service, which receives no government or United Way funding, relies on volunteers, many of whom are retired.
"Our current crop of volunteers are older," Ehmann said in an interview. "They're becoming tomorrow's clients. And we're not getting as much help from that next generation."
It all started with a service project idea first pitched to the women's group at Second Presbyterian in 1968 by Barbara Robertson, the wife of the church's pastor.
The women officially launched the program Oct. 27, 1969, with five customers. They cooked that first week in Robertson's home while the church kitchen was being painted, Rahenkamp said.
Rahenkamp said she had no idea that the project would take off like it did.
"I have since told someone I had a guilty conscience that we had presented the church with this burden to be carried," she said. "It's like running a small business."
It officially has been one since being incorporated as a non-profit on Feb. 10, 1992.
Clients pay $5 a day, which covers the cost of groceries. That includes enough for three meals: a hot lunch of meat and vegetables; a sack dinner of a sandwich, juice and either a cookie or pudding; and the next morning's breakfast of cereal, milk and a slice of bread
Volunteers are coordinated through five churches who now serve about 200 clients. Only the church cooks and a part-time assistant at the program's headquarters at the Lexington Senior Citizens Center are paid. The program has received funding for the last 16 years from the foundation set up by the late Lillian Edwards, a former Meals on Wheels client.
The longevity, self-sufficiency and goals of the program are points of pride for volunteers past and present.
Margaret Bourne drove routes for two of the churches between 1979 and 1999 after she retired from General Telephone Co.
Bourne, 92, said she would have liked to have continued volunteering for such a "worthwhile cause" but eye problems — and her doctor — took away her wheels a decade ago. She and one of the volunteers she paired up with even had a motto: "We'd laugh and say, 'Well, we solved the world's problems,' " Bourne said with a grin.