Jack Wigington sat at his kitchen table Friday morning cursing the sticky heat and, more importantly, his air conditioning not being on.
He was waiting for midday, a time when a volunteer delivery driver from Grand River Health drops off a free meal to his front door. The service is Rifle hospital’s Meals on Wheels program, which is in its 46th year.
Each day, Grand River Health supplies up to 100 free meals to homebound seniors interspersed throughout Parachute, Rifle, Silt and New Castle. Some are disabled, others are in hospice care.
In Wigington’s case, he is a widower. He lives alone in a bungalow on a dusty ranch perched atop a mesa overlooking Rifle toward its east.
Whenever the 89-year-old former sheep farmer wants food, he drives nearly 2 miles west, navigating a steep hill on East 16th Street before reaching City Market.
“I come right back,” he joked. “I don’t want to drive into somebody.”
At least 72 meals-on-wheels volunteers take turns completing delivery routes in each city, making stops for people like Wigington, who was literally born on his ranch.
“I never did like change,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”
But factors like aging volunteers, Garfield County’s growing aging population and, unsurprisingly, record high gas prices, have led to a driver shortage.
“I don’t see how they can afford to pay $ 5 a gallon for gas just to feed me,” Wigington said.
For now, Grand River Health Director of Volunteer Services Kaaren Peck is helping fill in the blanks. Since the service increased from providing 6,676 meals in 2006 to 21,397 in 2022, either current volunteers pick up extra shifts or hospital administrators fill in directly.
Peck said Meals on Wheels, offered five days a week, may have to cut down on driving days if volunteers continue to dwindle.
“I still need nine drivers,” she said while looking at a computer screen in her office. “This has never happened to us so much where we have such a high need for drivers.”
Drivers are usually retired. They range anywhere from former nurses and public school employees to information technologists. People like Garfield County Coroner Robert Glassmire and Kristine Coombs, wife of Grand River Health CEO Jim Coombs, also help out sometimes.
Pat Owen, 72, is a retired computer programmer analyst who used to also teach computer technology to students at Cactus Valley Elementary School. Closing in on nearly 15 years, she’s become one of Meals on Wheels longest-standing volunteers.
“It’s a positive experience,” she said. “And we’re there for them. When somebody isn’t there, you immediately call and say, OK, no one answered the door. ”
Barbara Pina-Brainard, 90, likes the company. The retired psychiatric technician who formerly worked in a hospital caring for mentally ill men lives alone at a senior housing unit in Rifle.
Her son, Rifle Police Officer Diego Pina, keeps his mother’s freezer full with microwavable meals, and the only time she really gets out is when Diego brings her to the mountains.
“I’m frustrated at times because I can’t do what I want to do,” she said. “I have this stupid walker that I have to use. I can’t go anywhere without using it. ”
But when Grand River comes by, her mood changes.
“Some of them are very friendly,” she said. “They’re fun to talk to.”
Every meal is cooked inside Grand River Health’s kitchen. Right around 10 am weekdays, nutritional service workers Irma Borja and Elvira Loya Villalobos then transfer the meals into a stack of coolers. Peck estimates that Villalobos herself has helped cook and distribute at least 750,000 meals.
Volunteers then load the coolers into vehicles provided by the hospital or their own, with Grand River Health reimbursing gas mileage.
Volunteer Linda McFarland, 68, is a retired nurse of 40 years. She drives from New Castle maybe once or twice a month, she said.
“It’s 70 or 80 miles that I’m driving,” McFarland said. “That’s why I don’t want to do it every day.”
“We definitely need more volunteers.”