WILLMAR -- Every Tuesday Vicki Dew takes an early lunch hour from her job as an associate at Wal-Mart to deliver hot meals to elderly, ill or disabled Willmar residents enrolled in the West Central Industries' Meals on Wheels program.
"It just gives you warm fuzzies and it's an opportunity to meet other people," said Dew, who's been delivering food, a smile and a 5-minute chat to appreciative clients since 1999 when she moved to Willmar from Maryland after retiring from the Navy.
Dew was a volunteer driver in Maryland and enjoyed delivering meals so much there that she went looking for the program here and has been volunteering ever since.
Although she usually delivers meals once a week to her usual route of seven to eight clients, she will be delivering meals five days this week because there is a shortage of volunteer drivers needed to deliver all the meals on all the routes.
West Central Industries needs eight to 10 volunteer drivers every day, Monday through Saturday, to deliver about 100 daily meals in the Willmar city limits, said Jamin Johnson with West Central Industries.
Recently they have been short one to three drivers every day, forcing staff to scramble to find regular volunteers, like Dew, who might be willing to donate another hour of time and drive an additional day.
When that isn't possible, West Central Industries staff picks up a route or two to make sure the clients get the hot, nutritious meal they need to stay healthy, independent and in their own homes.
"We're really thankful for everyone who's given their time," Johnson said.
Those on the receiving end are also grateful. "We hear a lot from people that feel very blessed to stay in their own homes with some support," Johnson said. "They get a hot meal and see a friendly face."
But, frankly, more volunteers are needed.
Some of the volunteer drivers are elderly themselves and are unable to drive when winter weather turns nasty, and some are snowbirds.
Some drivers volunteer once a week, some once a month and some once in a while, said Johnson, who invites people to try delivering meals just three times to find out what the process is like. She's confident that if people try it, they will be back.
"You feel like you've made a difference in someone's life," Johnson said.
A number of area churches, businesses and service organizations commit to providing a certain amount of volunteer hours.
Some individual volunteers team up with a friend or a teenage son or daughter and use the hour of delivering meals as a time to bond with a buddy or child while doing something good for others, she said.
"Once people have done it and find out how easy it is and how fun it is, they come back and do it again," she said.
Volunteers are greeted with coffee and cookies at the West Central Industries kitchen, given a map of the route, coolers of food and a binder with delivery instructions, Johnson said. After delivering the food, the coolers are returned to West Central Industries. The process takes about an hour.
Warren Sundstrom, food service director at West Central Industries, said it would be helpful to have more volunteers willing to commit to a specific day, as well as volunteers who would be willing to step in to fill an open spot when scheduled volunteers are not able to deliver the meals.
He said West Central Industries will work around anyone's schedule if they are willing to deliver meals.
Considering the cost of gas and time, Sundstrom said the Meals on Wheels program could not exist without volunteers.
Dew, meanwhile, has persuaded a number of her Wal-Mart co-workers to pitch in with the program, with employees delivering meals three days a week. Because the company matches employees' volunteer time with money, Wal-Mart has also donated thousands of dollars each year to Meals on Wheels. "Every little bit helps," said Dew.