Delivering Food and Smiles: V&E’s Quarter-Century Commitment to Meals on Wheels

Every few weeks, V&E energy regulation partner Mike Tomsu leaves his Austin office around 11:15 and heads to a Meals on Wheels distribution center a few miles away. He picks up several meals and then he’s off on his regular route, delivering hot food to people in need. When Tomsu finishes his run, he grabs a quick lunch on his way back to the office and then it’s business as usual. It’s a routine he’s followed for nearly a quarter century.

“It’s just a blessing,” Tomsu said. “After 25 years, I still look forward to it.”

V&E lawyers and staff have volunteered with Meals on Wheels’ central Texas branch since 1994. Tomsu and V&E billing coordinator Janie Orta were among the very first crop of volunteers and they continue to take shifts today. Tomsu, Orta and other V&E volunteers have made more than 1,100 deliveries over the years, following the same route in east Austin, according to Meals on Wheels volunteer management coordinator Jennifer McGaffeny.

“We have 370 active teams, but none of them have really volunteered as long as V&E,” McGaffeny said. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

“To me, it’s not work. It’s doing something for my community and knowing I’m making a difference.”

Without volunteers, Meals on Wheels would have to rely on more paid drivers. As of now, some 93 to 95 percent of routes in central Texas are covered by volunteers. V&E’s volunteers alone have saved the organization nearly $43,000 to date. That savings, McGaffeny says, helps Meals on Wheels support its various free services to those in need, ranging from home repairs to helping with clients’ pets.

Today, there are seven volunteers from V&E and they rotate shifts so that each volunteer delivers meals about once every month-and-a-half. Dividing up the duties this way, says Orta, is part of what has helped V&E stay committed to Meals on Wheels for so long.

“Everybody has a busy schedule, so it’s nice to be able to rotate,” she says.

The other factor driving V&E’s long-term commitment to Meals on Wheels? The gratifying nature of the work.

“I still remember from the first time I delivered how grateful the people were when they answered the door,” Tomsu said. “You could tell that this was providing a substantial part of their daily nutrition.”

McGaffeny said that many Meals on Wheels clients are elderly and immobile, unable to cook for themselves. But the work that the organization and its volunteers do goes beyond just providing meals — they also provide a much needed point of human contact each day.

“A lot of our clients are lonely. They don’t have friends or they don’t have family,” McGaffeny said. “The volunteer that delivers their meals is usually the only other person that the client will see in that day. ”

Tomsu said that most of his conversations with Meals on Wheels clients take place in the clients’ doorways.

“You say, ‘How you doing this morning, Mrs. Smith?’ and usually, they’re happy to tell you how things are going, or what the weather’s like, or what’s the latest in their lives. You get a little snippet of what their life is like,” he said. “You have a chance to give them a little social interaction in an otherwise quiet life.”

Debbie McCullough, a professional assistant with V&E who joined the volunteer team in February, said she has enjoyed getting to know the clients on V&E’s route. They include an ardent Texas Longhorns fan who loves talking football, a wheelchair-bound man who breathes with the help of an oxygen tank but always has a smile to share with volunteers, and a sweet woman who asks volunteers to bring in her mail when they deliver her lunch.

“It is a very rewarding experience engaging with the elderly,” McCullough said.

Working with Meals on Wheels, added Orta, brings both a welcome change in pace, along with a sense of achievement different than what you might find in the office.

“Sometimes it can be a very stressful day here at the office, and when I leave and I’m doing Meals on Wheels, that stress just goes away,” Orta said. “To me, it’s not work. It’s doing something for my community and knowing I’m making a difference.”