It didn’t take long for word to get up to Coos Bay that problems were brewing at the Chetco Activity Center’s Meals on Wheels program.

And it ends up, most of the people involved were overthinking their duties and making the work that much harder on themselves, said Melissa Dovenspike, the director of the Area Agency on Aging for Coos and Curry Counties.

Problems at the Chetco Activity Center in Brookings came to a head two weeks ago during a contentious meeting in which volunteers demanded the resignation of General Manager Thayne Groff for alleged bullying, wearing inappropriate clothing and the noncompliance of Meals on Wheels (MOW) food standards.

Terry Rowland, a MOW volunteer driver, said food was not meeting minimum nutritional standards because the cook has not been trained to serve the large number of people the program serves. Others complained meals weren’t being served at the proper temperatures and recipients weren’t getting what they’d requested in their meals.

Dovenspike put Rowland on a short-lived suspension after one recipient told her that Rowland was telling her about all the “horrible stuff” going on at the center.

“The Department of Human Services considers that abuse, and as a mandatory reporting person, I did an investigation,” Dovenspike said.

The person who complained about Rowland wasn’t even on his route; in actuality, the complainer had read about the “horrible stuff” in a Pilot article about the meeting, she said. Rowland is back on his route — and now sends her photographs of the thermometer in his delivery bag each time a meal is delivered, she said.

Overthinking it

The problem was easy to figure out, and the solution should make life simpler for all those involved, Dovenspike said.

MOW is required to provide one-third of the federal daily nutrition requirements for protein, calories, and minerals in each recipient’s meal. But the kitchen staff was creating more work for themselves by making dietary concessions for almost every meal recipient who requested one.

That’s not how it works, Dovenspike said.

The program can only make concessions for those with diabetes, not for food preferences — or even food prohibited due to religious beliefs.

“They will serve the exact same meal to each consumer, whether that consumer likes fish or green beans; they will get what’s on the menu,” Dovenspike said. “It’s unfortunate, but if I made concessions for each and every person — that’s 150,000 meals a day. There’s no way I can make concessions for 1,800 people.”

She met with Thayne and his wife Glenda, who serves as the treasurer at the activity center, and went through the MOW meal program.

“They have a new menu to run off of that’s certified through a dietitian,” Dovenspike said. “They have three years’ worth. They have plenty of choices to work with.”

Dovenspike also plans to work with the cook and drivers — and the “anonymous faction” who was leaving notes in random areas of the center complaining about the situation there.

“They’re not that far off,” Dovenspike said. “A whole pot of things were stirred together to create the problem. We can take each of those things out and fix the problem.”

And, she added, had they not agreed to comply, she “would pull the contract and it’d be 30 days before they move. You have my word.”

Dovenspike, who oversees seven MOW sites in the two counties, said situations like that at Chetco Activity Center are not uncommon.

“Many senior centers with a lot of people with lot of time on their hands tend to have this atmosphere of bickering back and forth,” she said. “If they could just enjoy the time with each other, they’d be much happier.”

She said she sat down with the CAC board to figure out how to address such situations in the future.

“I told them to read their bylaws and when they’re in session, when someone goes against something, point it out in the bylaws,” Dovenspike said. “Assist them in figuring it out instead of fighting about it. It makes it difficult when they’re not united. Both sides have the right idea; they’re both there for the right reasons, but they can’t get along.”

As the mother of nine children, seven of whom are girls, she will not tolerate such behavior, she said.

“I’ve seen manipulation,” Dovenspike said. “I see right through you. I’ve seen it all; there’s no point in lying. Had the anonymous faction leaving the notes come to the head of the group instead of creating this drama …

“No one ever contacted me and made any complaints,” she added. “I can’t fix things unless I know they’re going wrong. They have to tell me if there’s a problem. We want to make it go back to the smooth operation it has been for the past eight years.”

Funding meals

MOW programs throughout the nation operate on a thin fiscal operating line as it is, Dovenspike and Jenny Bertolette Young, the vice president of communications for MOW in Washington, D.C., agreed.

“A lot of programs are struggling just to keep their doors open,” Young said. “Funding for Meals on Wheels fails to keep pace with the need, the senior population is rapidly increasing, people are living longer — and the baby boomers; they’re expected to double by 2060. It’s a growing need.”

She said while the program nationally is seeing some small increases in federal funding, that still only pays for 35 percent of the cost to bring the program to homebound people.

The rest, Young said, is recouped through foundations, grants and donations.

“Philanthropy in general isn’t growing, either,” she said. “And in a lot of communities seniors are now outnumbering children. It’s a shift that’s happening across the country.”

Dovenspike said Curry and Coos counties serve twice the number of meals as Douglas County, yet receives less money from the state.

The Coos/Curry program is a “Type A” program, only receiving Area Agency on Aging funding. Douglas County, a Type B recipient, gets more money because it works with, and therefore receives, Medicaid money.

“We’re just a little program that runs through a nonprofit,” Dovenspike said.

She added that she anticipates things will simmer down in Brookings once the center’s members and volunteers fall back into what should be a simpler routine.

“Both factions want what’s best,” Dovenspike said. “They just seem to have their own political differences. I will be watching them like a hawk.”

Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.com .

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