From offices rented from the First AME Church at 1823 Michigan Avenue in Santa Monica, Meals on Wheels West performs a small miracle five days a week: They deliver meals to roughly 250 people in Santa Monica, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, and Topanga who because of age or infirmity need food brought to where they live. This allows those people to live in their own homes and enjoy a greater degree of independence in their lives. The visits also serve as a system of monitoring the health and safety of the program’s “clients.”
At a time when major disasters often pull our attention, it’s important to be mindful of the consistent work being done day in and day out by organizations like Meals on Wheels West. Mirror writer Steve Stajich sat down for a cup of coffee with the organization’s energetic and outgoing executive director, RoseMary Regalbuto.
The organization here in this building is how old?
Since April 1974. Yeah, it’s amazing! I’ve been here since ‘87. [Laughs]
What drew you to this, do you remember?
Oh, yes. We have three children [her husband, director/actor Joe Regalbuto, played Frank Fontana on CBS’ Murphy Brown] and the children started Unitarian Sunday School because I wanted to give them a global concept of different religions and felt the Unitarian Sunday School would do that. The first week they were there we received their newsletter, and there was an advertisement for a director of Meals on Wheels. Working from 9 to 2. My kids were young, in pre-school, and I thought, “I could do that!” and… here I am. And I love it, I totally love it.
So are you a branch of a larger organization, like a Red Cross branch…
No, there’s no affiliation. Independent, totally. So none of our money goes into maintaining a national office. However… we also don’t get nationwide advertising like you would being [a branch of] the Red Cross. There is a membership organization, the Meals on Wheels Association of America. There are probably 900 programs that are members of that. They advocate for us in Washington and negotiate contracts whether it be for purchase of vehicles – there’s a special rate through General Motors – or we get a deal on our office insurance.
Meals on Wheels started in 1947 I think, in England, and moved to the United States in ’52, got to Pasadena in 1970, and our program started in 1974, and they just kind of sprang up, these grass roots organizations… very often started by groups of nurses, or churches have historically set these up. Or sometimes just individuals.
Your title is…
President and CEO. Which is the going terminology now in the nonprofit sector, so in order to fit with my peers I’m now president and CEO. No more money, no more anything, but I get that title. [Laughs] I’m very fortunate that I didn’t have to depend on this for my living, but I found something that I was passionate about and could do. I felt that just coming here and being given something to feel complete about… you know it sounds very corny, but –
No, not at all. I think this is what drives people.
It’s just been wonderful for me. I don’t think I even said “No” until I was 40, you know what I mean? And then I started saying, “Hey, I have a life, I’m not just a mother, I’m not just Joe’s wife… which, you can imagine, was compounded because we’d go to events and the paparazzi’s clicking and they’d say, “Who’s the girl with you?” and I’d say, “I’m not a girl, I’m his wife… you want to know anything else?” So I think I’m very fortunate to have found something that I love and that I feel passionate about.
I think you are, too. [A friend] has been delivering meals for five or six years now. Part of it must be once you’re in, you start thinking about those people and you can’t let go and that becomes kind of addictive.
That’s great. We keep them [meals delivery volunteers] on the same route so they do get to know the clients. Initially the majority of the clients are very old, I mean, probably close to 71 percent of our clients are close to 75. And maybe 60 percent of those are over 85. We serve a very elderly population. Not intentionally, that’s just who’s accessing our services. They’re skeptical, they don’t let people in, so it’s very important for them to get to know the volunteer, and the relationships that are formed are so wonderful. I’ve gone out and delivered meals; it’s something I would do with my kids on Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I’m not working on those days, and I’m out with my family and you feel so alive to be helping and to be giving back. You see the difference that it makes in those people’s lives when you walk in… you said you’ve delivered meals…
I went out a few times and it’s so clear that there’s a ‘nutritional’ aspect, if you will, to just making the visit. And the consistency of it is a huge deal.
Oh, definitely. The food is important, yes, but that social contact… remembering their birthdays, remembering the holidays… especially for these people where the majority of them are living alone. And they don’t have anyone else. “I don’t talk to my son” or “My family’s back east…” And it’s really sad, so I think it’s really important. We bring a family to them and to bring the outside world in, almost.
Now it’s not just elderly. Some people are infirmed by AIDS…
Yes, our youngest client is 25, and our oldest is 103. It’s totally amazing.
What’s the structure of the funding for this?
Basically we started off as a private nonprofit and we still are. The City of Santa Monica had a frozen meal program that they were doing that they received county funds for. We took over that program and incorporated it into our program and it’s an aspect of our program, only. We still have the majority of our program funded by our fundraising and our grant-writing and our events, but we do have this little component of county funding, but it’s only meal reimbursement costs. Nothing else. And there’s a tremendous amount of reporting in it as any kind of government whatever. And we report to the city who then reports to the county. So, indirectly, we are now getting some county funds, but we never turn anybody away because of inability to pay. So we had all these clients who weren’t paying and that’s wonderful, but somebody has to pay for those meals. So when we started getting the county funding, that helped cover the people who, to some extent, weren’t paying in.
You have an upcoming fund raising event?
A casino night on February 9. Check our website out!
So what makes up a proper “Meals on Wheels” meal?
We deliver two-thirds of the minimum daily [nutritional] requirement, not bringing them breakfast. So there’s a hot lunch, which we encourage them to eat during the day. It’s easier to digest. They’re not as active as other people so it’s better for them to eat the heavier meal earlier and then a lighter supper. Of course, they do what they want anyway. I mean there’s no telling a 103-year-old how or what to eat! But it is two balanced nutritious meals, prepared under the supervision of a dietician, and the menu has to be approved. Because of our county affiliation, the menu has to go through the county for approval and that kind of gives us an endorsement…
You know you’re on the right track…
Exactly. I don’t really want a kitchen because then I’d have to hire a dietician to oversee it, there’s health issue… so… I purchase my meals or I get them donated from other places. Pepperdine University does our Malibu route, for example, so the volunteers go to Pepperdine, pick up the meals and then deliver out. During the fires, Pepperdine closed down, and since then I’ve gotten passes that will allow us to bring meals from here to Malibu should we have to. [During the fires] we called all of our [Malibu] clients and two had evacuated. All the rest, our volunteers took care of them. They said, “We have food, we’ll take care of them.” Which was wonderful. So we work around different things.
And some of the hotels here prepare meals for routes. The Loews Santa Monica Hotel has been preparing meals for us for probably 15 years. The clients don’t necessarily know. “I want my meals from the Loews Hotel!” [Laughs] I’m sure you do… [One facility] does five meals for us a month. But, those meals are donated and it’s a way of pulling in the community.
I’m guessing that the economics of all this must be carefully watched.
The client may or may not be paying for the meals. Our fee is $6 a day for those two meals, but the true cost is probably over $15. It changes depending on how many meals we’re serving. And our client base is declining, which is how you can help me. Because we’re not so good at getting the word out. We don’t advertise, we don’t have tremendous visibility.
It does have a kind of covert quality about it, when you consider how other programs and causes get big attention.
It’s hard. And we’ve got to do annual solicitation letters, and we find donors to come to our events. We give these fabulous events and get things hosted. We don’t pay a lot of money. I’m really a good wheeler-dealer on that. I don’t like paying money for… anything! And people don’t usually say “No” to me. They may not give me exactly what I ask for, but I get something else. Because people do want to help. But I just have to get them and there aren’t many of us.
August through the end of November is the big push. You go and you speak everywhere. To talk to employees, to remember Meals on Wheels [in their donations].
How do you let people who need you know about you?
I got a grant to hire someone who acts almost like a drug rep and go to all the doctor’s offices. It’s very hard. I want to get an email database so I can make sure they [medical people] have literature to give to their clients. We got Santa Monica Hospital to agree to put our brochure in their discharge planning packets. So we printed 20,000 brochures because they have 1,000 patients they discharge every month.
Not everybody is going to need Meals on Wheels, but many people will go home [from a hospital] before they’re ready to take care of themselves. So, if they’re in our area, we’ll help them, and if not, we’ll refer them. And now we have a sign on all the Big Blue Buses telling people about us.
What you do is built on a promise, to be there and bring something to eat. How do you build consistency when you’re using volunteers? Are you just lucky?
Joanna Vasquez, our volunteer coordinator, is just wonderful. They [volunteers] love her. And if we find the right volunteers, they just love it. Because it’s a maximum of two hours a week and the rewards are tremendous. Because after you’ve done it, you’ve really made a difference, and you go out feeling great. You’re on the front lines. You’re going in and seeing the person that you’re helping. You’re not just giving money or giving something and it goes to someone and you never know. There’s a relationship, and Joanna is a wonderful volunteer coordinator.
We have a volunteer base of about 400. Only 94 work a week, but there’s always reserves. From Santa Monica College we have business students that will come and help in the office. And the people that deliver meals, we can call them when we’re short when someone is not available or going on vacation. Of course we always say, “No, you can’t go on vacation, sorry!” [Laughs] We are just very lucky.
We have developmentally disabled people who come and work with us and then move on to [paying] jobs. But many stay with us for a long time. [RoseMary cites one such man who volunteers four days a week to her organization.] And we depend on him. He’s consistent and he’s wonderful.
Your volunteers come into people’s homes and in addition to the meals, they’re checking on their well-being. What are some of the parameters of that?
The volunteers do form relationships with their clients and if they notice anything, they’re very good at telling us what’s going on. There is a volunteer training film that Joe narrated and one of my oldest sons filmed years ago –
All in the family!
Oh, I have to work all my resources. In fact, my mother is even in that film. She was the “client.” But volunteers see that film, then we send them out with an experienced volunteer and they train them as to what to look for. Milk that’s outdated in the refrigerator, broken glass in the sink. When I started in ’87, after just a few days in the office I went out on a route. And I am delivering meals to a client, and we knock on the door and hear a faint voice. The lady had gone to take a bath on Saturday and was unable to get out of the bathtub. She drained the water, but stayed there until we got there Monday. That made such an impact on me that it sold me. I tell that story a lot when I’m speaking.
It’s a contradiction of modern life that we have all these communications devices, yet it is hard to know exactly how people are doing in their homes.
We’ve had a client that committed suicide. And it’s hard for us. And we’re the ones trying! Those are our losses. But the people that we can keep in their own homes, that’s our victory.
A lot of older people think of us as charity and they don’t want to accept charity. And we want to re-educate and say, “Yes, we’re here to serve, but you can pay for the meals.” And people do like to pay, even if it’s [some part of the cost]. They feel better about it, because they’re not accepting “charity.” So I’d love to dispel that theory. That, and we serve all ages. To enable them to live in their own homes as long as possible. And we can feed someone for $2, 190 a year in their homes. Check to see how much it is to be in a hospital for one day. Or the cost of emergency room visits. We can feed somebody for a year for far less money. There’s a wide, rolling effect of other things that might occur if we weren’t there to help.