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Meals on Wheels program gets help from Golden Diners

Volunteers Connie Walter (from left) Jim Ward prepare package lunches for homebound seniors Thursday Hampshire Township Building as delivery guy

Volunteers Connie Walter (from left) and Jim Ward prepare to package lunches for homebound seniors Thursday at the Hampshire Township Building, as delivery guy Dan Holda (right) delivers the food from Elgin. The meals are prepared at the Hemmens as part of the Salvation Army Golden Diners Nutrition program. February 7 , 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 12, 2013 6:11AM

ELGIN — Forty-one years after an ecumenical group of volunteers called Church Women United started delivering meals to the homes of elderly and ailing shut-ins in Elgin and South Elgin, their “Meals on Wheels” project has gone out of business.

Closure came on Feb. 1 mainly because the same women who had started it in 1992 were still handling its management, but they were now in their 70s and 80s.

A larger, multi-county operation known as Golden Diner and run by a branch of the Salvation Army will be able to take care of most or all of the elderly people who used Meals on Wheels.

But one group left out is disabled people under age 60, because Golden Diners aims only at seniors.

Based in Geneva, the Salvation Army Golden Diners Nutrition Program serves all of Kane and McHenry counties. Unlike the CWU’s Meals on Wheels, which only delivered meals to homes, Golden Diners operates both home-meal delivery five days a week and “congregate lunches,” in which diners gather together in a lunchroom. The sit-down lunches are offered at three locations in Elgin and one each in St. Charles, Geneva, Aurora, Cary, Crystal Lake, Marengo, Harvard, McHenry and Woodstock.

At Judson University in Elgin, for example, a Monday-through-Friday program called The Senior Circuit is run by students in Judson’s exercise and sports science department, in the Lindner Fitness Center. The program begins at 9 a.m. with individual exercises, followed by gym exercises at 10 and finally a lunch catered by Golden Diners from 11 to noon. It often attracts 40 or so people. Participants can sign up for $30 per person for a whole semester, not including the meal cost.

Senior Services Associates in downtown Elgin offers Golden Diners lunches twice a week, at 11:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays.

Cooking at Hemmens

The nerve center for the Golden Diners’ program can be found in the basement of the Hemmens Cultural Center in downtown Elgin. Kitchen Manager Dave Robertson said the Salvation Army used to buy its lunches from a private catering service. But Golden Diners reached an agreement with the city of Elgin allowing the group to make all its meals for the two counties in a kitchen at the Hemmens. Saving the Salvation Army thousands of dollars, the move to the Hemmens took place last fall.

About a half-dozen paid Salvation Army employees show up at the Hemmens at 5:15 a.m. each weekday to begin cooking and organizing the meals into plastic-sealed “TV dinner”-style plates. Other Salvation Army employees driving trucks pick up the boxed lunches at about 7 a.m. They then spread out across the Fox Valley to deliver the congregate meals to their various sites. They also take caches of individual meals to local distribution centers in places such as the Hampshire Township Building and First Congregational Church of Huntley.

At the distribution centers, a small army of CWU-style volunteers picks up the home-delivery lunches and brings them to individual homes in time for lunch.

Carol Hecht, a volunteer who organized the CWU delivery force in its final years, said the Golden Diners project differed from CWU’s in three ways:

Golden Diners serves only people over age 60. CWU’s Meals on Wheels also served younger shut-ins, such as a 40-year-old man blinded by diabetes.

CWU’s Meals on Wheels delivered two box meals a day, not just a lunch.

Finally, because CWU’s meals were made in the kitchen at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital (and, in earlier days, also at Sherman Hospital’s kitchen), Meals on Wheels was able to offer more varieties of food, tailor-made to the recipient’s health status. When a Courier-News team followed some Meals on Wheels delivery volunteers in 2011, for example, one box lunch specified “Diabetic Diet, No Gravy or Spinach.” Another needed a “General Diet, High Calories and Protein.” Golden Diners offers only two choices: regular meals and meals for diabetics.

No rescuer

On New Year’s Day 2012, The Courier-News published a cover story about the CWU’s desperate search for new blood to take over its leadership. Hecht then said the organization was able to line up plenty of volunteers to do the actual deliveries, many of whom came from local churches, synagogues and civic clubs. But what the program really needed was for somebody else to take over management of the whole thing from the aging CWU board.

“We hoped that another umbrella organization might come forward. But that didn’t happen,” Hecht said last week. So finally, Hecht said, the remaining CWU people decided to shut down Meals on Wheels after Jan. 31.

At one time, Hecht said, Meals on Wheels served 50 clients a day. But with a possible shutdown looming, CWU stopped accepting new clients in recent years. By the last day, just eight people remained.

Hecht said CWU leaders met with the Salvation Army people and arranged to transfer all the surviving Meals on Wheels recipients to the Golden Diners program.

“As far as I know, we left no one without meals,” Hecht said.

Hecht said she also has urged the delivery volunteers to start working with the Golden Diners program.

How to apply

Party because of its wider geographic reach, Golden Diners already was much bigger than CWU’s program. Kitchen manager Robertson said it serves about 750 meals a day, of which about two-thirds are home-delivered.

Colleen Rojas, administrative assistant at Golden Diners headquarters, said applicants for the home-delivery service must be at least 60 years old, unable to prepare or shop for their own food, and unable to come to a congregate dinner site such as Judson’s. Each must be interviewed by a case worker from Senior Services Associates to certify that they need meal deliveries and to define what their specific needs are.

If the senior is physically able, Golden Diners encourages recipients to attend one of the “congregate dining” lunches. “The program offers not only the opportunity for seniors at risk of malnutrition to have a good meal, but it also encourages seniors to come out and enjoy lunch with their peers,” notes the project’s website. “We want the seniors to have access to an appropriate meal (but also) fun and friendship.”

According to the Golden Diners website, preparing and distributing each lunch costs the Salvation Army about $7. Rojas said clients are encouraged to make a voluntary donation according to their ability to pay but that anyone may enjoy the meals, whether they are able to contribute or not.

“We get funding from many different sources,” Rojas said, “from what the clients can pay, from private donations, from state and federal programs, and from local United Ways.”

The Golden Diners program is headed by Majors Ken and Cynthia Nicolai, who formerly commanded Elgin’s Salvation Army corps. But the Golden Diners is a separate branch from the Salvation Army corps in Elgin, St. Charles and Aurora, so donations to one are not shared with the others.

More information about Golden Diners is at or at 630-232-6676.

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