BELOIT — Soldiering on with hot meals in hand, volunteers for Meals on Wheels have been key team players in an effort to continue serving local senior citizens in need during the pandemic.

As Meals on Wheels is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Beloit, those involved say the well-being of their clients remains their top priority with volunteers deserving due credit.

“We could not provide our essential service without our giving and compassionate volunteers,” said Meals on Wheels Executive Director Ellen Wiegand. “Being able to provide meals to our vulnerable seniors, during a pandemic, is just amazing and it reflects on the commitment of this wonderful Beloit community.”

Meals on Wheels has seen increased needs for service during the pandemic, and volunteers have been working hard to help keep seniors fed and healthy, Wiegand said, adding she expects demand will continue to grow over time.

The organization has seen a 23% increase in total meals served and an 11% increase in the number of clients being served, Wiegand said.

“Serving more seniors has filled up our meal delivery routes to almost maximum capacity,” Wiegand said. “Thanks to the outpouring support of volunteers, we added a new meal delivery route back in August to meet the demand—even in the midst of the pandemic, which is truly amazing.”

Meals on Wheels also plans to add an additional delivery route and is looking to recruit more volunteers, Wiegand said.

The organization currently has 11 routes, which serve between 10 and 16 seniors each.

Wiegand said Meals on Wheels serves 130 clients every day. Those residents are able to choose between five and seven day meal service, along with a cold evening meal option or frozen meals.

The army of volunteers serves people 365 days out of the year, and the pandemic has not disrupted that schedule, Wiegand said.

In 2019, Meals on Wheels had 502 volunteers who collectively gave 6,800 hours of service, drove more than 33,000 miles and delivered over 35,000 meals to homebound Beloit seniors, Wiegand said.

“Our volunteers truly understand the importance of our mission and how essential our meal service is. Our volunteers have risen to the occasion with an outpouring of generosity and showed that humanity is indeed winning,” Wiegand said.

Central to the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration will be the return of the Mushing for Meals 5k/10k Run Walk on June 26.

Husband and wife Randy and Kathy Loescher have been volunteering with Meals on Wheels for about four years. They are both from Beloit.

Randy Loescher said Meals on Wheels is especially important in part because sometimes, the volunteers are the only company certain seniors will have for the day.

Kathy Loescher said she has aging parents who benefit from programs like Meals on Wheels, and she enjoys getting to know her senior clients.

“It’s just giving back to our community that has given so much to us,” she said. “It’s really a good organization all around.”

Building good relationships with clients and sharing stories is central to the community spirit of Meals on Wheels, Volunteer Program Assistant Madeline Stucky said, adding she is inspired by the volunteers’ efforts.

Particularly during the pandemic, Stucky said the organization is an essential service, and the fact that volunteers have rallied together for a good cause means the world to their clients.

“Our volunteers are so invested in our seniors and knowing they are safe,” Stucky said. “It just goes to show how dedicated Beloiters are to lifting up the most vulnerable.”

When the pandemic hit, Wiegand said Meals on Wheels reached out to clients and adjusted its delivery methods with safety in mind. Volunteers, wearing masks, dropped off food outside each client’s door to allow for social distancing.

Because the office has limited space to allow for social distancing, Wiegand said staff will run bags out to volunteers waiting at the curb and send them off.

Meals on Wheels also redesigned its interior to space out the mini ovens and allow for greater social distance for those working inside.

The remodel was made possible by a grant through the United Way Blackhawk Region.