First lady Sandra Deal hugged quite a few familiar necks during her tour of the Gainesville-Hall County Meals on Wheels program on Tuesday.
The retired Hall Schools teacher met with volunteers and delivered food to clients of Meals on Wheels, which will deliver about 100,000 nutritious meals to frail elderly Hall residents this year.
March is nationally known as Meals on Wheels month. Deal praised the local program for its impact.
"Meals on Wheels is just a great service to this community," she said. "It's something we need to do more of if we can."
During her visit, the first lady ran into some old family friends and acquaintances, including a Meals' client who used to baby-sit her children.
One of her first stops was at the home of Ethelene Presley, a 91-year-old Gainesville resident, who used to look after Deal's son, now Superior Court Judge Jason Deal.
"Without your help I'd be short some children," the first lady joked with Presley.
Chatting in Presley's kitchen, the women reminisced on kin and also Presley's skill with skillet cornbread.
"Now I can't cook nothing," Presley said, citing her age and health.
With the program, Presley enjoys several hot meals a week, complete with protein, a vegetable, milk and desert.
Deal said Meals on Wheels is an important program because it helps look out for some of the community's fragile residents.
"We don't have families living close together as they once did," Deal said,
That makes it harder for people who would have traditionally been checking in on an aging parent or grandparent. The absence of nearby family can make it less likely elderly people living alone will get nutritious meals.
Making matters worse, Deal said, many seniors are having to choose whether to spend their fixed incomes on housing, medications or food.
Milon Christman is the Meals on Wheels coordinator. In addition to providing food, he said the program's volunteers also provide some outlet for social interaction to residents who are often unable to leave their homes.
"Most of these people, we're going to be the only ones they see all day long," he said.
That interaction came in handy for one client recently, he said. A volunteer had dropped off a meal at one of the clients' homes, but noticed something about the person's condition seemed out of the ordinary. The volunteer left the home to drop off other meals, but returned to check in on the ill client.
When the volunteer arrived, Milon said, the client had a heart attack. But the volunteer was able to call for help, saving his life.
Noting the hard work of the volunteers, Deal said she regretted not volunteering for the program when she lived in Hall County full time. She was under the impression, she said, that volunteers needed to be available weekly to deliver foods, but her schedule was less flexible.
Instead, she learned from Milon that some volunteers help out part time, only delivering food on a substitute basis.
In addition to volunteers, the program is also supported by the community through funding.
The Meals on Wheels program receives financial support from Legacy Link Inc., which arranged the first lady's visit, as well as from the city of Gainesville and Hall County. However, the program is increasingly reliant on private donations due to governmental budget cuts.