PALESTINE — Whenever Liz deBessonet got “the blues” as a little girl, her mother would quickly respond with the sure-fire cure: “Stop thinking about yourself and get up and do something for somebody else!”
Little Liz paid attention.
“My mom was a great lifetime volunteer. I come from a big family, and we were always brought up to do stuff for other people,” Liz said.
Now, over half a century later, her mother’s message still rings true for the retired East Texas citizen, who volunteers with her husband John in the Palestine Meals on Wheels program. Every Monday and Tuesday, the couple pulls up to the side door at the Palestine Senior Activity Center and loads their backseat with cases of dinners, sides and milk to be distributed to homebound elderly in the area.
“We just wanted to help, and we're retired now,” Liz said. “We don't have a million things to do, and we have the time and the energy now to do it.”
Their route — one of seven volunteer routes within the Palestine area — takes about an hour to deliver, though the deBessonets clock in more minutes than that. For starters, the couple drives into town from their home in the Piney Woods, near Frankston. Once on the route, it’s a teamwork effort. The two have it nailed down, considering they’ve done it for the past couple of years. John controls the wheels and Liz handles the meals, hopping out at respective locations and scampering up to the door with the goods.
Liz said she tries to “check up” on the residents at each location, since some may not interact with anyone all week outside of Meals on Wheels volunteers.
“You get to know the people,” Liz said. “And if there are problems, you can report back, if they're ok or they’re not ok or whatever.”
Some are in the city. Some are a little ways out. Some live with family. Most are alone.
All depend on the program for food, which makes the couple’s mission especially important to them.
“It's like the mail,” John said during a recent route. “The food's got to be delivered.” He looks out the driver’s side as he says it, while his other half carries a meal to the door for what must be the thousandth time.
Come rain or shine, ice or heat, the team doesn’t shy away from their chosen task — continually electing to drive the miles and carry the meals.
“I got her a rain jacket, boots. Cold and rainy is when it's the worst,” John says, though noting, thankfully, Texas doesn’t have too many of those days.
In any case, neither party considers the program a burden. They still plan lives around their chosen routine, taking time to travel and make good on their retirement days.
“(Meals on Wheels) is really good because they're flexible with us, and they're willing to take us when we can do it,” Liz said. “I think they have trouble getting volunteers these days, and part of it is because gas prices are so high, and so many people financially just can't afford to spend the extra money to deliver.”
Though federally funded, the Palestine Meals on Wheels program has suffered in recent months, according to Homebound Coordinator Camille Graham. The more pressing concerns address a lack of volunteers and of funding due to budget cuts and a decrease in donations.
In Palestine alone, the program involves 30 volunteers, who deliver one meal a day Monday through Friday to 135 residents. But the program is actually more extensive than this, since Palestine is the base center for serving not only Anderson County, but Rusk and Cherokee Counties as well.
“Our cooks get here at four in the morning to start cooking,” Graham said, a tab that calls for more than 800 meals daily. “We order our food from a company here in East Texas — Ben E. Keith.”
Under the Older Americans Act (OAA), those benefitting from Meals on Wheels are broken into two main groups. The OAA authorizes and provides appropriations to the Administration on Aging (AoA) for three different nutrition programs under Title III:
• Congregate Nutrition Services (Title III C1)
• Home-Delivered Nutrition Services (Title III C2)
• Nutrition Services Incentive Program (NSIP)
Graham said under “C1,” anyone is welcome to come to the Senior Activity Center and eat there in the building. Folks under age 60 are requested to pay $5, or $3 if over 60.
The “C2” category covers the folks on the deBessonets' route, those who are over 60, homebound and not able to cook for themselves. Routes also cater to Medicaid recipients, who are of various ages and selected through the state.
Graham said volunteers start showing up around 10:20 a.m. to collect and distribute the meals. While the program employs paid drivers in areas such as Henderson and Jacksonville, Graham said Palestine is pretty much totally dependent on the willing hearts and wheels of volunteers to transport the meals, with the only exception being residents who live outside the city.
“We do have some paid drivers that run routes out in the further areas of Elkhart and Tennessee Colony and those areas,” Graham said, noting that these residents are delivered to once a week — one hot meal and four frozen meals.
Meals on Wheels accrues limited federal, state and private funding, but budgets are wearing thin, Graham said, as the program struggles to meet increasing demand for services. Graham said that hours may end up being cut for some paid drivers, which handle most of the routes for Rusk County and Cherokee County.
“Then you have to pay the vehicles (seven of those) that they drive, the wear and tear and mileage.”
For these reasons, Graham said the need for volunteers is substantial. To become a volunteer, people can call her directly at 903-729-0612, option #4. Ask for Camille and leave a message if she isn’t in.
Liz reaches into the backseat, grabs a brown bag and peers into it.
“Today, looks like chicken, noodles and Brussels sprouts,” she observes.
For each recipient, Meals on Wheels provides a “hot” bag, the entrée; a “cold” bag with salad and dessert; bread and a carton of milk.
The character and sense of expectancy varies at each stop. For one resident, Liz trots up to the door and leaves the meal in an ice chest, per the recipient’s request. For others, she knocks on the door, exchanges some friendly sentences and is on her way. Still others welcome her in as one of the family — like Ms. Rose.
Rose is a colorful lady in every sense of the word. Her perfectly curled hair is almost as red as her lipstick.
“She’s always all duded up,” Liz says, and Rose agrees: “If I don't have earrings and lipstick on, I am naked.”
She ushers Liz in with the manners of someone’s well brought-up daughter and, accordingly, as if suppressing a bit of childlike playfulness.
“I don't know what I would do without them,” Rose says when asked about the program for which Liz and John volunteer. And it’s clear to see — the gratefulness shines from her eyes.
The two women stand and chat for a bit before Liz turns to go. But not so fast, Rose decides. She reaches around and picks out a teddy bear from his perch on the shelf behind them. When a button is pressed, the bear sings and dances. And Rose dances with him.
It’s enough to make anyone smile and kick up their heels. But the route must go on.
The two wrap up their conversations, and Liz is back in the car with John, who has his own way of keeping amused.
“I'm kind of a crossword addict,” he confesses, under the mustache. He holds up a book with the page folded over. Black and white boxes are smudged with pencil lead, darkening the negative space on the page.
“I'd be sitting at home working a crossword puzzle anyway.” His tone is non-negotiable, and he goes back to the riddle he was figuring. Liz is already back from another stop, gets in and shuts the door. John picks up with his part of the teamwork, but drives a little further past a driveway than Liz would prefer — provoking admonition. Directions aren’t needed, though driving advice has its place.
“I complain about his driving and his parking because he makes me walk,” Liz says. Her nose wrinkles up, but she stops short of a laugh.
Lastly, the car pulls into the parking lot at a local motel. Liz doesn’t need to rap on the door at this stop; it’s already open.
The man sitting on the side of the bed recognizes her instantly and proceeds to tell of his latest predicament surrounding an insurance claim. Liz, who worked with insurance in the big city before retiring to her East Texas life, offers to help.
“I'll call them for you next week,” she says, and the man with sea-blue eyes nods and smiles.
It's apparent that the people on this route are more than names or addresses.
“One year if it hadn't been for y'all, I probably would have starved,” he says.
After a few minutes, Liz leaves to return to the car, and the man walks with her. He has to walk slowly, due to a previous life injury. Liz suggests jokingly that he should shave his frosty beard. But he won't, “cause I don't want the girls to chase me!” he calls after her.
A SPECIAL STOP: HOW IT ALL BEGAN
At one point during the route, John takes the SUV off the path down an uncharted stretch of road. Thankfully, they weren’t planning to kill the newspaper reporter along for the ride, though this next part is “secret,” according to the couple. (After a bit of haggling by said reporter, they agreed to let the Herald-Press print it — we thought it was sweet.)
John stops in front of a fence, and two large heads look up. It’s immediately clear who the beneficiaries of this stop are.
Helloes are called to Misty and Stormy (the deBessonets are on a first name basis) and the two reddish horses amble up to the fence. Both couples appear happy to see one other. The horses have grown shaggy winter coats, which Liz and John stroke with friendly familiarity. One horse has a strikingly fashionable blaze taking up the majority of his face.
After a brief how are you and how’s the weather, the ritual begins. One by one, Liz pulls out a couple of pre-cut apples and carrots from a bag and hands some to John, who flattens his palm and serves up the “meal.”
The deBessonets have permission from the owner and make this stop regularly.
The weekly meeting isn’t that far from the beaten path, since the deBessonets — both animal lovers — originally joined Meals on Wheels in Houston through a branch of the program called AniMeals.
“It was part of what they did with Meals on Wheels,” Liz said. “They discovered that so many of the Meals on Wheels people had pets, and they would give their food to their pets because they didn't have enough money to buy pet food. So what they started doing was delivering pet food for once a month. John and I did that for several years.”
After the couple relocated to the peaceful Piney Woods, the two began looking for local ways to continue their service.
“We were familiar with the program already when we came. I think I just saw an ad in the paper that they needed volunteers,” Liz said.
And that’s how it all began.
The horses just happened to be in right place at the right time, and have thus established themselves as a regular stop on the two animal- and people-lovers’ route.
But remember, it’s still a secret.
For more information about Palestine Meals on Wheels, call 903-729-0612 or visit www.mowacr.com.