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Volunteers keep Atwater’s senior dining program alive

Participants eat a meal Monday provided by the Atwater senior dining program. The nutrition service is overseen by Lutheran Social Services, which is celebrating 40 years of providing senior meals. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

ATWATER — By 11 a.m. on a blustery fall Monday, senior diners had already started arriving at the Atwater Community Center for their noon meal.

The Swiss steak, baked potato and corn — topped off with pineapple for dessert — was served to the seven adults at their tables amidst good-natured bantering and updates on family weekend activities.

The hot meal provided vital nutrition, but perhaps more important is the belief that sharing a meal with community neighbors provides vital social interaction that can help seniors stay in their homes longer, said Karen Fischer, the volunteer coordinator for the Atwater senior dining program.

The community commitment to senior citizens is seen statewide through nutrition programs, including congregate dining and home-delivered meals on wheels.

But the level of volunteer teamwork in Atwater for these programs is unique, said Claudia Cederstrom, assistant director of senior nutrition for Lutheran Social Service, which is celebrating 40 years of funding and coordinating senior dining programs in Minnesota, including in Atwater.

Without extensive volunteer time this summer that proved the town’s determination to make sure seniors had the opportunities for shared mealtime, the congregate dining program would have been discontinued.

“That’s what drove the program in Atwater — the volunteers,” said Cederstrom.

“This community is absolutely wonderful when it comes to volunteering,” said Gerry Passmore, chairwoman of the Living at Home Block Nurse program, which recruits volunteers for a variety of senior initiatives, including the dining program.

Although the number of home-delivered meals has been consistent, the senior congregate nutrition program in Atwater has had its ups and downs over the years.

When the number of participants got so low a few years ago that Lutheran Social Service determined it could not continue to pay staff to operate the congregate dining program at the Atwater Community Center, the program morphed into a diner’s club-type program. For several years, seniors could have a noon meal at Thompson’s Bakery.

When the café closed on short notice this spring, Lutheran Social Service informed the community that seniors would be limited to meals delivered once a week to their homes.

That was unacceptable, said Passmore, who rallied community volunteers to find a solution so that seniors could continue to eat hot meals together.

She solicited the help of Peaceful Thymes owner Elsie Cashmark, who operates a small sandwich shop in her greenhouse/hardware store. Cashmark allowed Lutheran Social Service to deliver meals to her store each day, and volunteers were there from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to keep the food hot and serve it to seniors who came to the store to eat and chat.

“She opened her heart and she opened her business,” said Passmore, adding that the program could not have survived without Cashmark’s assistance.

Volunteers from the block nurse program and area churches did daily kitchen duty to make sure seniors could eat together, said Passmore.

“Everybody was volunteers. Nobody was paid,” said Passmore, who came every day to make sure the meals were ready to go.

Cederstrom said she has never seen that level of volunteer commitment for a senior dining program.

“They had pretty definite ideas that they wanted service five days a week and they were willing to do anything to keep it,” said Cederstrom.

Impressed with the level of community dedication, Cederstrom said Lutheran Social Service agreed to provide a stipend for a part-time staff employee and resume the congregate dining program back at the Atwater Community Center. They have been back there about a month.

Having their own space allows seniors to participate in other activities before and after lunch, like bingo, cards and the bone-builders exercise class.

The number of participants has been slowly growing, said Fischer.

Passmore said people realize the town came close to losing the dining program and they need to use it more to avoid losing it in the future.

Meanwhile, to celebrate Lutheran Social Service’s 40th anniversary of providing senior nutrition programs and to thank the local volunteers, an open house will be held from 1-3 p.m. Monday at the Atwater Community Center.

The anniversary is also being celebrated Nov. 12 in Spicer and was marked earlier this week in Willmar.

Cederstrom said Lutheran Social Service operates 222 nutrition sites in 39 counties, making it the largest provider in the state. Last year the agency served more than 1 million meals to seniors by partnering with community groups, including getting funding from the Minnesota Board on Aging and United Way.

The senior dining meals are available to anyone 60 and older for a suggested donation of $3.85, although no one will be denied a meal. Those under 60 can also participate at a per-meal rate of $6.70.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750