By John L. Braese
ONTARIO – Jim Houston grabbed the turkey dinner out of his pickup Thursday and walked to the door. In his three years of volunteering for Meals on Wheels, Houston had delivered to Dennis Slager numerous times.
Slager, clad in a bathrobe and sweat pants, welcomed Houston. Inside, the temperature was only a few degrees warmer than the outside. No lights were on, no television played.
Houston knew something was wrong this time.
Throughout the year, Meals on Wheelers volunteers such as Houston are the only regular visitors to seniors around Malhuer County. As would prove the case Thursday, such visits can be life saving.
Sitting in an apartment or home with no way to drive, many with family far away and only a dog or two to keep them company, the sight of Houston walking through the door with a prepared meal is the highlight of the day. Houston and others like him are frequently the lone face many of these people see all day.
Slager needed more than a meal.
“Can you go to St. Al’s, talk to the receptionist in the emergency room, mention my name and get me some medical supplies?” Slager asked.
“I will take care of it,” Houston replied.
Returning to the office of Malheur Council on Aging and Community Services, Houston discussed Slager’s condition with Tammy Butler, nutrition specialist.
Butler immediately called the hospital, which dispatched help to Slager and found him in serious condition.
“You probably just saved that man’s life,” Butler told Houston. “He was in bad shape.”
Saving someone’s life is not an everyday happening for Houston, but bringing a smile and a hot meal to a person who may never see another person that whole day is what keeps Houston coming back.
Houston has been volunteering his time, gas and smile for three years. After retiring from the Oregon Department of Transportation after 34 years of service, Houston found he still needed to get out and do something. He makes the trip to see the people on his list on twice a week. Knowing the route, he will finish up in just a little over two hours. On Tuesdays, Houston will deliver a hot meal along with three frozen meals. He will deliver a hot meal on Wednesday and Thursday along with any special diets meals prepared at Saint Alphonsus.
“Meals on Wheels contacted the church I attend looking for volunteers so I put my name on the list,” he said. “A lot of time, my wife comes with me on the deliveries. Other times in the summer, I bring my six-year old grandson. I think showing him what we do is an opportunity to teach him to share and a good example of what he should do in life.”
On Thursday, Houston loaded his pickup up with insulated bags filled with turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing and two slices of bread. A carton of milk was also packed into his pickup for each delivery and he took off.
The people on Houston’s route are as diverse as the stories behind why they signed up for Meals on Wheels.
The first stop for Houston is David Campbell, a man with gray beard and hair to match.
“I like the old guy,” Campbell said of Houston. “I have been on the program, it seems like forever, and Jim is one of the best.”
After delivering the turkey meal, Houston and Campbell discuss what day to go out for coffee.
“David is one of my favorites on the route,” explains Houston. “He is quite a character.”
Carmen Ruiz has been on Houston’s route the past three years. In a home, full of pictures of kids and grandkids along with two small dogs barking and zipping around, Ruiz gratefully took the meal.
“The food is really good and I pray they never stop this program,” said Ruiz. “I don’t drive so it would be hard for me to get to a store.”
Those sentiments were echoed at the next stop with Rachell Freeman.
“The program saved my life,” she said at the door of the duplex she lives in. “It is just wonderful.”
Freeman was referred to the program after medical procedures made it difficult to walk. Her dog groomer made the call to have Freeman signed up for the meals. Although Freeman has family living in the area, they couldn’t help because of problems of their own.
“My mom is 87 and my sister no longer drives due to medical issues,” Freeman said. “I was not eating before Meals on Wheels and my health was taking a toll because of it. I am doing great now that I eat every day.”
Regina Recla has lived in the Malheur county area her entire life. If not for Houston’s deliveries, Recla said her family would step in and take care of the daily food needs. However, living by herself, Recla says she looks forward to Houston’s visits.
“He is fun,” Recla said after sitting down in her chair, an oxygen tube trailing down the hallway. “I enjoy seeing these guys show up.”
The next stop marks one of the older receiving turkey with all the fixings that day. Margaret Keith is 103 or 101, depending on what day she is asked, lives alone.
Houston bangs loudly on her door because Keith sometimes doesn’t hear the doorbell.
With family out of the area, Houston is often the only person Keith sees on a daily basis.
“She is fiery to be sure,” Houston saiD. “If she does not like that day’s meals, you will definitely know about it. She is not shy.”
Today’s meal passed Keith’s inspection -- except the wheat bread.
“Take these back. I am not eating the bread,” Keith said. “I like it when they send the pork meal the best. Today’s meal looks ok.”
Houston said Keith’s story is like many he learns.
“Her children live out of state and although they come up often, she still basically would see no one for a couple days if it were not for Meals on Wheels,” he said. “They need someone to look forward to and we fill that need.”
Living in a small house just outside of Ontario, Connie Pena answered the door.
“I guess I would need to get food from the food bank,” she said. “I don’t drive so that would be hard to do. I have three sons here in town that would take me, but being diabetic, I need to watch what I eat.”
Meals on Wheels also addresses special diets, according to Houston.
“I like when Jim delivers beef tips or enchiladas the best,” Pena said. “Jim is a good man to do this for us.”
The incident with Slager was the next stop.
Apart from the crisis, Slager was eager to tell Houston about his most recent project, an old travel trailer sitting in the driveway. Houston had been to the house just weeks before, helping Slager with sizing some boards for a new door for the trailer.
Houston promised to bring a piece of plywood Slager has requested.
“It needs to be 2X10X10,” Slager instructs.
While Slager can still drive, medical problems have taken a toll.
“I have been driving since I was five,” he said. “I am not going to quit now.”
At the next stop, Houston delivers to a long-time Chukar baseball fan, Carl Tanaka. In a small, two-bedroom apartment, Tanaka has signed pictures of Chukar teams hanging on the wall and others sitting on tables.
“I used to play baseball,” Tanaka said.
Tanaka said he counts the days until Houston shows up at the door with spaghetti, his favorite of all the meals.
As the afternoon winds down, Houston makes a last stop at the apartment of Susan Fuzi.
Fuzi uses a walker to get to the door, but is excited to see the turkey meal.
“This program is important to me,” Fuzi said. “I like the meatloaf the best. I have a friend that helps me out, but I depend on Meals on Wheels to eat.”
Houston goes beyond just a simple meal. When Slager faced a ticket for low hanging branches on trees in his yard, Houston cut down the branches. When Freeman mentioned she couldn’t get to the store, Houston provided her his number to call any time she needed a ride. When Campbell needs a cup of coffee, he calls Houston.
“These people mean a lot to me,” Houston said. “They are what I have to be thankful for.”