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A hearty helping of volunteers

• Bob Osborne and Diane Jones help ensure meals reach the seniors who need them.

Posted: April 21, 2008 1:15 a.m.
Updated: June 22, 2008 5:03 a.m.
At 6:30 a.m., when most people are snug in their beds asleep, Bob Osborne and Diane Jones are hard at work, manning the assembly line.

For several hours they slice, dice, scoop, dump, scrape, transfer and bag. No, they don't work in a factory or sweatshop - they are among the 50-odd SCV Senior Center volunteers who willingly donate their time to put together more than 400 meals a day for housebound seniors all over the Santa Clarita Valley.

For Osborne, it's a five-day-a-week job, and for Jones, three. Such dedication is appreciated by many, including Robin Clough, the Senior Center's director of volunteers and recreation.

"They could be anywhere else right now, but they choose to be here," said Clough, as she watched the pair and several other volunteers finish scooping bean salad into small plastic containers.

By 11 a.m. the prep work is finished and the drivers hit the road, delivering their goods to households from Newhall all the way to Agua Dulce. Their delivery route covers 350 square miles and is among the largest of any senior service agency in California.

"We're thankful for those dedicated 50 volunteers, and the drivers who go out in the cold rain and the searing heat," said the center's executive director Brad Berens. "They are kind of like the Pony Express."

When asked what drives him to such acts of generosity, Osborne cited a combination of practical and humanitarian reasons. A volunteer with the Santa Clarita Valley Food Pantry for 17 years, he felt that his expertise in that area could also benefit the Senior Center, where he's been helping out for the last nine months. He's at the center from 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., then hops over to the food pantry until 2 p.m., then goes back to the center.

Osborne said the business also provides mental distraction. "My wife died a year and a half ago, and I wanted something to keep me busy so I don't dwell too much on it," he said.

Jones said she derives satisfaction from knowing that she is giving back to a community that has given her, and her late mother, so much.

"My mother had the original Meals on Wheels delivered to her, before she died of breast cancer," she said. "So I feel that by doing this, I am honoring my mother in some way." In addition to helping prepare meals from 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., she works on the center's lunch line as well.

"They are like the proverbial pair to draw to," said Berens, who could not speak highly enough of Jones and Osborne. "Diane is unbelievably important to us down there, and Bob is like an emissary between us and the food pantry. We can always go to them in a pinch if something else falls through. They exemplify exactly what we need in senior volunteerism."

Volunteers are needed now more than ever, according to Berens, because the food delivery program is growing by approximately three percent a week, which equates to nine households. Demographics has a lot to do with it.

"You hear about the 'age wave' coming," he said. "There are active, younger seniors and then older, frail ones. Nowadays we see the older ones much more. It used to be a 50-50 proposition, but now it's tilting toward the advanced elderly."

Keeping pace with the changing makeup of the senior population is part of the center's mission. "We are one of the last communities in Los Angeles county that makes a promise that whenever you need a meal, we'll get it to you," Berens said. "We want to be able to keep our promise to not let anyone go hungry or without attention."

Berens added that being able to respond immediately to seniors in need of food aid is crucial to their quality of life and well-being, because it delivers more than just food. It's a lifeline for those who receive it.

"The meal delivery is the gateway to other services that keep seniors independent," Berens said. "Once you're in the meal program you get an automatic daily phone call, social workers check in on you several times a month, and peer counselors do in-home visits, too."

"Other agencies are putting people on waiting lists of up to a year," he added. "But by that time, the damage is often done already. They are prematurely institutionalized, and their life changes detrimentally."

The growth of the meals program has paralleled the growth of the senior center itself, which served approximately 1,800 people 16 years ago when Berens started working there, but counts 8,700 now.

"We serve one in four senior households in the SCV," Berens said. "We are one of the best in California."

The folks who get their food delivered every day would likely agree.

"Some seniors are just waiting at the door when we arrive," said Clough.

To sign up for home meal delivery, call the Senior Center at (661)259-9444.


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