My ride-along with Meals on Wheels

Story and slideshow by IAN SMITH

Experience the ride-along as we delivered meals to about 70 homes.


From the moment I hopped into the truck I knew I was in for more than I could have ever expected. I saw the route list. I saw the 70-plus houses that I was going to have to visit. I was excited about the journey I was about to embark on.

The emotions that I would feel throughout the day were making me shake. It wasn’t the feeling of fear, however, more of just a heightened sense of things.

The Salt Lake County Meals on Wheels program was the right choice for me to bring out my emotions on paper. The program itself has an eligibility that older adults must meet to become part of the program.

I walked downstairs and met my driver for the day, John Neerings. I quickly noticed his big smile. It put me at ease. Usually there is some tension between two people when they first meet, but that feeling was nowhere to be found when I was with him.

Of course, we took our time so he could show me exactly where all the meals are cooked and processed. He began walking around the kitchen, which is in the basement of the south county building on 2001 S. State St. I was surprised to see how fast all the employees and volunteers worked.

Meals were taken to different trucks, which were outfitted with a refrigerator and a warming oven. Drivers then quickly left on their routes.

Neerings showed me how the holding section of his truck worked. He had controls by the steering wheel that regulated the temperature.

We got everything ready and it was time for my ride-along. He packed me a Coke and muffins for the ride.

Vital to the community

Jeremy Hart, the independent aging program manager of Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services, said he realized how important the program is to the community once he experienced a ride-along for himself.

In a phone interview, he talked about how vital the meals are for people’s overall health. He told me that the recipients get one-third of their required dietary intake with the meal they get daily.

Hart said the program is growing quickly. Meals on Wheels delivers 1,300 meals per day and currently has around 1,500 clients. In 2013, he said, 330,000 meals — 11,000 more than the previous year — were delivered in Salt Lake County alone.

The volunteer support is substantial. One-third of the drivers who deliver the meals are volunteers. Hart said having them is important to the community and keeps the program from having to start a waiting list for clients.

“The senior population is going to be expanding exponentially by 2020,” he said. “Really soon you’ll have more seniors than you’ll have school-aged kids.”

Meals on Wheels is “a godsend”

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I asked Neerings how he likes his job. The response was more than I had imagined.

“I do love the clients,” he said. “I do care about them. I feel like I’ve got 80 grandmas. I love the job and the people and it gets me exercise.”

Neerings said he enjoys being that “sparkle in their eyes.” That is what motivates him to get going every day — so much so that one of his clients told him the same happy story for about a month straight.

I could see in his eyes that he was struggling when the topic of death was mentioned. I asked if he has many instances of clients who die. He said it happens too often.

I asked Neerings about negative events he’s been through. When he related a few troubling stories, I knew I was in for a long day of emotions.

One client fell during the night and broke her hip. She was unable to reach her phone, so she lay on the floor for hours. Neerings found her in the morning when he brought her a meal. He said he had trouble sleeping for weeks because of it.

Our route took us to places around the city that I didn’t even know were there. Some places I’d like to forget; others were really nice and clean.

One stop after another, we checked homes off the delivery list. We often stayed for longer visits with clients.

June Poulton, 86, who lives near Highland High School, called Meals on Wheels “a godsend.”

“They are the most wonderful people,” she said. “The treat you with respect. They are so comfortable and the food is always so good.”

After visiting about 20 more houses, we talked with Ruth Newbold, 89. She said the food is very good and nutritious and that every once in a while, the driver brings her a treat just to be polite.

Many of the older adults we talked with were very emotional. For example, a woman named Beth was in tears because her son was having some health problems. She looked so lonely. Neerings tried to help her, but there wasn’t that much he could do.

We got back into the truck and an urge to cry came over me. Neerings said he has dealt with instances like that in the past and it is never really easy for him to handle.

“They unload on you when you get there,” he said. “They just need someone to talk to.” He said that Beth was one of the stronger women whom we would be seeing all day.

Neerings also has to deal with frightening situations. Toward the end of the ride, we drove through one of the roughest neighborhoods I’ve ever seen in Utah. As we pulled up to a motel, I was shocked by the awful conditions that Neerings faces weekly. But, he still stopped and said hello to everyone.

As the ride came to an end, he told me about some of his clients who have made him appreciate his job and his health. Neerings, who is 74,  looked forward to returning to the county building in the morning and starting all over again.

In Salt Lake County, a better option for justice


Since its creation in July 2001, mental health court in Salt Lake County is booming with results– helping not only individuals but the community, as well.

Two to five percent of people in the world deal with some sort of mental illness. Out of that percentage, 17 to 21 percent of inmates in United States jails are mentally ill.

“We do not think prison rehabilitates the person who is struggling,” said Tammi Odegard, Pahrump, Nev., Specialty Court Coordinator.

About 400 miles north of Pahrump, Salt Lake City is also addressing similar issues of treating the chronically mentally ill in the court system.

Mental health court is a combination of criminal justice and mental health agencies. An adult and juvenile mental health court has been established in the Utah courts for many counties. It provides services for treatment and case management, along with community supervision. The program’s goal is to leave each patient with improved mental health and personal well-being.

In addition, mental health court reduces recidivism and improves public safety, Odegard said. The goal is to decrease clients’ contact with the criminal justice system by providing different courts with resources that will improve the social function of the clients. Along with treatment and support, mental health courts link their clients with housing and employment opportunities, as well.

“These types of courts provide immense amounts of advantages to help the client, especially, dealing with their cases. It provides additional incentives for them to do well and prove themselves to the judge that will be their final sentence,” Odgeard said.

Graduating from a type of program like mental health or drug court also helps in a large aspect with other agencies in the judicial system, such as family court and with challenges of child custody. The program requires those who participate to demonstrate responsibility and a desire to change their ways. Officials in Salt Lake County have similar feelings on the issue.

“We need to be smart prosecutors, not zero tolerance,” said Sim Gill, Salt Lake County District Attorney, who has supported mental health and drug courts throughout his career as a prosecutor.

Gill points out that that before the implementation of mental health court in Third District Court in Salt Lake City, the commission of new crimes by the mentally ill hovered at 68 percent. Mental health court has helped decrease that number by 17 to 19 percent.

By keeping the chronically mentally ill from returning to jail time and again, society is saving money on public resources, too, Gill said.

Every 230 days an “event failure” occurs. Gill spoke of an event failure as a criminal who repeats another crime. Results have shown that after one goes through the mental health court, the number of days that a mentally ill person re-offended had increased to 1,300.

Although mental health court is voluntary and requires a long-term commitment — one year on average —  Gill and other proponents believe the program’s benefits far outweigh its costs.

In Third District mental health court, 51 to 100 participants enter the program each year. The court accepts participants who have been diagnosed with Axis I disorders- mental illnesses that are persistent or serious and require medications. Upon completion of the program, participants’ are likely to be reduced or entirely dismissed.

In the process of implementing mental health court in Utah, access to mental health resources has greatly increased. Gill said a vast number of people lack the access to get help, leading to the continuation of repetitive crimes and a resulting burden on the courts. Mental health court has helped to change that.

“We need to take care of their addiction, not just lock them up,” Gill said.


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