SEASIDE - Budget cuts threaten the senior meal program for Clatsop and Tillamook counties - and the impact is not lost on those who use it.

Lou Delp, 76, takes lunch through the program at the Bob Chisholm Community Center in Seaside three days a week. She managed the meal site 18 years ago.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

Meals on Wheels driver John Pincetich loads lunches into the van for delivery Friday afternoon at the Bob Chisholm Community Center in Seaside. Like fellow diners, as well as program coordinators, she recognizes that the meals represent more than nutrition. They are important to her emotional health in the form of social interaction, she said.

"I live by myself, and, like a lot of us, I don't drive," she said. "For me ... coming here, it's my way of life."

"For some people, it's the only social (opportunity) they have," added Jean Wilson, 78. "They come to lunch and talk to people."

The room used to be full, but with cutbacks on transportation and other aspects of the program, attendance has slackened, Wilson said. But the program still serves roughly 15 to 30 people every Monday, Wednesday and Friday - in addition to a bevy of home-delivered meals served by volunteer drivers.

In addition to nutrition, reduction of isolation is one of the key goals of the senior meal program under the federal Older Americans Act, according to Ann Stephani, executive director of North Coast Senior Services. It is one of the reasons the organization is trying to promote fund-raising efforts to offset financial shortfalls for the meal program.

WHERE TO DONATEContributions to the senior meal program may be directed to North Coast Senior Services, P.O. Box 87, Wheeler, OR 97147. In Clatsop County, North Coast Senior Services serves meals to seniors at sites in Seaside and Svensen, and it also delivers meals in those communities and Warrenton. Of the 1,125 meals a month, 70 percent are home-delivered, said Don Weysel, program manager.

North Coast Senior Services also delivers more than 1,650 meals a month in Tillamook County, and serves hundreds more at centers in Pacific City, Tillamook, Rockaway Beach and Nehalem.

The meal program relies heavily on suggested donations of $3 a meal from seniors, but costs run closer to $6 a meal, Weysel said. "The remainder needs to be made up from funds from federal and state agencies that are earmarked for the program, and from contributions."

Mashed money

The immediate concern involves trying to bridge a projected funding gap that stems from federal and state governments.

As one of 18 area councils on aging in the state, North Coast Senior Services is not allowed to have a deficit for any of its programs and therefore needs to raise revenues, Stephani said. "But without commitments for funding from other agencies, we have to plan for cuts."

In the worst-case scenario, in which there is no fund-raising, she foresees a $30,000 shortfall for the fiscal year for her agency.

Since last July, North Coast Senior Services has based its budget on planned funding allocations from the federal government, which is passed on to the state. But national homeland security and defense programs have shifted money away from domestic programs - including those for seniors, she said.

The problem is compounded by the struggling U.S. economy in which charitable foundations have fewer resources to contribute to social programs, she added.

The end result is that, especially until the next fiscal year - beginning in July for Oregon - area agencies on aging are coming up short.

"We're really looking for funding to stay operating as we are until June; that would give us some breathing room to plan," Stephani said.

North Coast Senior Services officials have been working on raising money since September, but have not seen sufficient returns, Stephani said. "The only place where we can really control our costs is how many days and meals we serve at each location, and that also drives how much we pay our on-site meal managers," she added.

The senior meal program for both Clatsop and Tillamook counties cost $312,000 between July 2001 and July 2002.

"It is not an easy program to run because of so many variables," she added. "It's like running a little restaurant, in a way."

She thanked people who have contributed to the program so far, and invited more donations and participation in various community fund-raisers. Among them is a performance by Hawaiian musician, "Keahi," from noon to 1 p.m. Friday at the Chisholm Community Center, 1225 Avenue A.

Volunteer voices

Stephani also commended the volunteer drivers who deliver the meals. "If we had to pay them, we would not be able to do this," she said.

Those who depend on the meals agree, pointing out that many who volunteer are fellow seniors.

"There are wonderful volunteers who deliver the meals on wheels," said Gabriella Joslin, 76. "I really admire them."

The meal program is only one of a number of services provided to seniors under the Older Americans Act, including legal advice (see related story). It is also part of a larger trend of funding challenges for seniors, Stephani said.

In Oregon, after six special legislative sessions and the failure of Measure 28, "many older people are still in dire straits," she added.

Seniors are losing services ranging from help with cooking and bathing to prescription drugs, and even their ability to stay in care centers, she noted.

The well-being of seniors should be of concern to everyone, as across the nation communities are "graying" because of advances in medical care and shifts in where people live, she said. Approximately one in four North Coast residents is older than 60, and in light of "baby boomers" reaching retirement the ratio could increase to half in the not too distant future, Stephani said.

In addition to a rewarding sense of purpose, the value of helping seniors with an eye on eventually becoming a senior herself is not lost on Dot Lusby, a volunteer at the Chisholm Community Center. "I'm a firm believer in what goes around, comes around," she said.

Jennifer Burch, the meal site coordinator at the center, said serving the seniors nourishes her emotionally, too. "I love it. They're all special to me, every one of them."

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