Decades of Service

By Kevin Tankersley

Waco nonprofits celebrate 50 years in the community

It’s a big year for three Waco nonprofit organizations. Caritas, Meals on Wheels Waco and Mission Waco all celebrate their 50th anniversaries serving in the community.

Buddy Edwards is the executive director of Caritas, a position he has held since 2008 after moving up from the assistant director post. A Waco native, Edwards graduated from Richfield High School and then went on to study social work at Baylor University.

Melody McDermitt worked for the Area Agency on Aging with the Heart of Texas Council of Governments before taking over as executive director of Meals on Wheels. She graduated from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma, and worked as an extension home economist in Oklahoma before moving to Waco.

Edwards and McDermitt recently sat down with Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley to talk about the importance of volunteers to their organizations (Spoiler alert: They’re really important), challenges they’re facing and how the proposed federal budget might affect their operations.

[Editor’s note: Mission Waco’s executive director and co-founder Jimmy Dorrell was our 2016 Wacoan of the Year. To learn more about Dorrell and the work of Mission Waco, you can read the full article, which was published in our December 2016 issue, at woty.com.]

WACOAN: Buddy, let’s start with you. Pretty much everyone has heard of Caritas but might not know for certain what it does. What’s the purpose of Caritas?

Edwards: We’ve really changed a lot. We started as a really small operation on Austin Avenue back in 1967. We’re currently located at the corner of 15th Street and Mary [Avenue], close to downtown. We’re best known for our food pantry program, providing emergency food assistance to people in need. We provide a lot of additional services beyond that.

We deal a lot of emergency assistance: help with utilities, help with rent, prescription medications, local transportation. We have two thrift stores [both named Hidden Treasures, located on Bosque Boulevard and Bellmead Drive], and through the thrift stores we’re able to acquire clothing items. We provide clothing assistance to folks in need.

Back in early 2014 we established a case management program that allows us to work intently with families in the effort of trying to move them out of poverty, get them on a pathway that’s going to make them more self-reliant, less dependent upon service organizations, and we’re very pleased with that program. It’s been very helpful to many people.

We have also SNAP outreach. SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s food stamps. We assist folks to help get enrolled in the program. We don’t determine eligibility, but we assist them in the application process. We also help them with other state and federal benefit programs.

The other program that we have is called Gifts-in-Kind. That program operates in conjunction with the Walmart return center here in Waco, through which lots of merchandise that has been returned to Walmart stores, which may have been damaged in transit somewhere along the way. The original manufacturers of those items, rather than having them returned to the manufacturer, have determined they can go to a charitable purpose. So we distribute those items to other nonprofits, about 250 organizations in Central Texas, and some even out-of-state.

They come on a periodic basis, once every couple of weeks, and we have a shopping area set up for representatives of organizations to come and pick out items that may be beneficial to them in their services to people or in their administrative operations. We distribute probably 2 million pounds of merchandise each year. There’s a satisfied customer right here.

McDermitt: We do participate.

Edwards: We’re approved by Walmart to do a carrying charge of 35 cents a pound. So organizations select items they want, and we’ll weigh the amount they got and we’ll invoice them on that charge. You can get a lot of stuff for 35 cents a pound. We have a lot of paper products. We have a lot of diapers. Household goods, cosmetics, some hygiene products, cleaning materials, things you would use in the kitchen.

It’s been very beneficial to these organizations and to clients they serve. We’re very pleased with the program and very appreciative of the Walmart Corporation for allowing us to participate in it.

WACOAN: So if organizations pay 35 cents a pound, that sounds like it saves them money, and then they can use that savings to provide more services to their clients.

Edwards: That’s the theory behind it.

McDermitt: It’s been great. We have 44 different locations of Meals on Wheels and senior centers in the three counties, so we use a lot of toilet paper, paper towels. Those are some of the larger items that we use. But it’s been a tremendous cost savings to us. It’s been very helpful.

WACOAN: What counties?

McDermitt: McLennan, Falls and Hill.

WACOAN: Melody, let’s back up a minute. What does Meals on Wheels do?

McDermitt: Meals on Wheels Waco has a variety of programs. Meals on Wheels is one of them, where we take a hot meal to homebound seniors. Our clients are generally over the age of 80, and we use volunteers to deliver those meals.

We do a home visit to talk about the program, and it’s an unusual program because you usually don’t get to go into people’s homes, so you really can see the situation. You’re able to see what kind of support they may have. We look at what kind of conditions they’re struggling with. So we’re not only trying to determine if they’re eligible for home-delivered meals — and basically you just need to be homebound and over the age of 60 and not able to prepare a nutritious lunch — we’re also seeing if there are other connections that we can do.

One of the things that we also partner with Caritas on is Groceries to Go. We have a number of clients who we know that they’re not going to have adequate food, even with us bringing one meal a day. We have volunteers that go to Caritas and get their bag of groceries that supplements what we’re able to do.

And we have senior centers, a place where individuals can go and have a hot lunch, meet with other people. We have exercise programs, painting classes, blood pressure checks, all of those kinds of things. It’s more preventive. We know if you stay connected and are active, you age better. To me, that’s an important part of what we do.

We also do transportation. At one point, we were called Meals & Wheels because we do Meals on Wheels and senior center meals and transportation. We subcontract with Waco Transit. We were doing Medicaid transportation. Just in the last few weeks, we’ve added elderly and disabled transportation.

WACOAN: So there are 44 senior centers?

McDermitt: That also includes the Meals on Wheels sites. Most of the Meals on Wheels sites, particularly in Waco, are in churches or came up out of churches. Originally, there were volunteers at these churches who would buy the food, cook it, deliver it, the whole thing. As our society has changed, there’s not many people who can or will cook for 30 or 40 at a time on a regular basis.

We started doing the preparation of the food in our central kitchen. Then we take it to the various locations and take it and package it and get it ready by route.

WACOAN: What drew you into nonprofits?

McDermitt: I’ve been able to work in a variety of places, and I think nonprofits have a lot of fun.

WACOAN: What’s the fun part?

McDermitt: I think helping people is fun, for one, and being able to look at a need and figure out how you can help alleviate that need. And collaboration, partnering with other groups to figure out what we can do together to make this world a better place. I think that’s pretty fun.

WACOAN: Buddy, what drew you into nonprofit work?

Edwards: My background is social work. I studied social work in school and got my master’s in social work. I was always attracted to the human services field. My first jobs were actually with the state, and [I] was fortunate to move into the nonprofit arena fairly early.

Prior to Caritas, I was at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center — in the old facility — for 29 years, so I’ve always felt my calling has been toward working with individuals, providing as best I can the help and assistance they’re needing, regardless of income. I feel it’s very, very important to devote one’s life to that calling.

I agree with the things Melody is saying. I think we find it enjoyable when we have opportunities to serve and collaborate and to look at the bigger picture here in our area, or in life, and try to see how we can make an impact on a broad scale.

WACOAN: Melody, how many meals a day does Meals serve?

McDermitt: A thousand meals a day.

WACOAN: And how many drivers do you have?

McDermitt: We have 107 routes on a daily basis. Most of the time, we would like [volunteers] to pair up, so one person drives and one person is the hopper, and that works pretty well.

WACOAN: Do your clients receive meals every day?

McDermitt: It is a Monday-through-Friday thing. It depends on what their needs are.

WACOAN: Buddy, how many folks does Caritas serve? Is that possible to track?

Edwards: On the average, about 125 families a day, looking primarily for food assistance, but we also provide these other forms of emergency assistance if there’s a need. For example, in May we had right under 2,800 families for the month. It’s a high number for us, but we’ve continued to see a great deal of need because our client base is low income, poverty-level folks, so there’s just lots of need within the community.

Thirty percent of our community, the population in Waco, is living in poverty. So every day, we’re just seeing the spillover from that. Certainly a great amount of need within just the area of food assistance.

WACOAN: Do you have any idea why there was such an increase in May?

Edwards: Summers now are really getting to be the busiest time of year for us, in large part due to the fact that children are out of school. Children who were on free or reduced-price lunch programs [at school] are home and have to be fed at home. There’s a great need on the part of families who have difficulty accessing food anyway. We just have a large number of people coming through.

Last August was the busiest August we’ve ever had on record. Again, it’s indicative of the fact that there’s a lot of families with children at home. We haven’t been able as a community to fully impact the level of poverty that’s existing. I think there’s a lot of effort to make improvements, but it just hasn’t quite gotten where we need to have it yet.

WACOAN: Melody, do you see months or seasons where Meals gets especially busy?

McDermitt: Absolutely. For us, the uptick happens around the holidays when children who live away come home to see mom and dad and discover that they’re not doing very well. We have more referrals from family who live somewhere else.

WACOAN: After the holidays do your numbers stay up?

McDermitt: One of the things that happened to us this year is that we were continuing to see these numbers really swell, so we had to establish a waiting list. We had a hundred people on the waiting list at one point. It’s back down to 15 now, but that was huge for us, and we knew that we couldn’t keep up that particular level. Most of the time, it does kind of swell then flatten out.

WACOAN: So how important are volunteers to your organization?

McDermitt: They’re the main part, for so many reasons. We’re not only bringing a hot meal to somebody, but we’re doing a wellness check. And volunteers see that person on a regular basis. They’re able to get that information back to us so we can send an assessor. Something may have changed.

We have numerous stories of somebody who has fallen and can’t get up. We have a lady who, a volunteer noticed, around her lips was very white and she seemed confused. When we checked on it, her pacemaker had stopped. We were able to arrange for a relative to get her to the hospital. When you’re seeing [people] on a regular basis, that can have a huge impact.

And the volunteers develop the relationships, and that’s the other fun part. Most of our volunteers feel they get more than the clients do. One of our delivery sites is our main office, so we see the volunteers as they come in and out, and that’s always uplifting. They really are passionate about what they do.

WACOAN: My dad was a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels, and he mentioned many times that he got to know the folks he would see on his route. He died when he was 82, and in his obituary — which he helped write — he said that up until three weeks before he died, he was still delivering meals ‘to the old people.’

Buddy, how important are volunteers to Caritas?

Edwards: They are critical to our operations. We use them in a variety of different ways. We use many volunteers in our food pantry program. We pair them up with a client. The volunteer is trained how to walk through the food pantry and help a client with the selection process for the items that they want. It gives the volunteer an opportunity to interact with people and help them in making those choices.

We really can’t see as many people as we would like if there are a shortage of volunteers. We run our food pantry service from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. We’re really slowed down and our clients are forced to wait a little longer and can’t get through quite as quickly [without a sufficient number of volunteers].

We also use volunteers at our Gifts-in-Kind program at the warehouse. One of the requirements for participation in the program is that the price codes on the products we give out have to be crossed out so items can’t be taken back to the store for refunds. We use volunteers for that. We also use them in our thrift stores.

We receive a large quantity of donations from the community: household items, clothing, what have you. Volunteers are very helpful in going through items and helping us get everything cleaned and prepared and putting price tags on. That process can also be slowed down if we don’t have enough volunteers.

We are very, very dependent on volunteers virtually every day of the week. We have a volunteer coordinator who seeks out people in the community who like to participate in those kinds of programs.

WACOAN: How many volunteers does Caritas have?

Edwards: Probably 225 a month, on average.

WACOAN: How many employees do you have?

Edwards: Across all the programs, probably 40 or 45.

WACOAN: And Meals on Wheels?

McDermitt: We have 44 employees, and about 1,000 volunteers.

Edwards: That’s a lot of volunteers.

McDermitt: Some of our volunteers volunteer on a weekly basis, some of them every other week and some once a month. Sometimes some of our regular volunteers are on vacation, we’re always looking for substitutes.

WACOAN: Melody, we were talking about my dad delivering meals when he was 82. Is your volunteer base getting older?

McDermitt: Yes.

WACOAN: Buddy, are you facing that, too?

Edwards: We have more younger and middle-aged people. We have a few folks who are older. We have one volunteer who is probably in his late 80s. He’s physically healthy and able to do things. In the pantry, we require some lifting and pushing and pulling. You have to be in somewhat good health to do that. We have volunteers across the age spectrum.

WACOAN: How do you go about attracting younger volunteers? You need them to deliver meals before lunchtime.

McDermitt: Delivery starts at 10:30 [a.m.]

We’re doing a number of things. We’ve found that working with businesses has been very helpful. We have corporate partners who allow their employees release time to deliver during the lunch hour. What they’ve found is that at a bank or a place like that, that has a lot of employees, it helps to foster communication between different departments, and that’s been seen as very positive.

WACOAN: And has your client base expanded as baby boomers are aging?

McDermitt: The boomers are here. As they start reaching their 80s, in the next 10 years, we’re really going to see a huge influx.

WACOAN: Is it possible to plan that far out and anticipate what your client base is going to look like in 10 years?

McDermitt: All of us, I think, are struggling with what we’re currently doing. When you start looking at increase, you can just be overwhelmed with what the needs may be.

Edwards: I think we are in a similar boat because of the aging of the population.

We’re likely to see more older people who live in poverty. Maybe they didn’t put enough away when they were in the working world. They’re living on Social Security and finding that their income is not meeting their needs.

As more and more people age and go into these circumstances, I think we could have a real serious issue dealing with older people living in poverty. It’s scary in the sense of how do you anticipate and how do you project that far out and how do you plan that far out to effectively meet the needs of that population. It is very challenging.

McDermitt: And we are preparing for the future by increasing our reserve funds and endowment. This will provide us with flexibility and confidence needed to face the challenges and opportunities of the future.

WACOAN: Where are your biggest needs right now as far as volunteers go?

McDermitt: Bellmead.

WACOAN: Drivers to deliver meals in Bellmead?

McDermitt: Yes.

WACOAN: Buddy, where are your biggest needs?

Edwards: It’s kind of across the board, but mostly in the food pantry. But we’re having difficulty because we’re asking volunteers to serve for a morning or for two or three hours. It can be a pretty significant part of someone’s day.

Our challenge is how to get people into our operations during the working day for a long enough period of time to be effective. If we have someone come in for just an hour or so, they only just get into it and they’re gone. We need people from 8:30-11:30 [a.m.] and then from 1-4 [p.m.]

To get people to commit to multiple hours can be difficult because people’s schedules are so hectic and it’s hard to break away.

McDermitt: One of the things we’ve been working on too is how to come up with a little more flexible volunteer opportunities. For meals [delivery], it needs to happen currently from 10:30 [a.m.] to 12:30 [p.m.] We also have Groceries to Go, and those volunteers can deliver those bags of groceries at various times. We also have a pet food program where we have pet food that we distribute. That can also be done at a different time.

We have young people who come in and help us package shelf-stable meals. That’s good for groups. So when we have a holiday, we’re sending a shelf-stable packet of meals. They sort of get in line and get it done.

Edwards: Like with Melody’s experience, we’d like to do more with businesses who are willing to let their staff go for maybe a morning or afternoon to help with our volunteer services. Those are really outstanding opportunities for volunteers.

Also, for volunteers who have not had an opportunity to work with this client population before, for them to come to Caritas and to interact with people and see how people have difficulties, is a very educational experience. A lot of times, people leave having been very moved by the experience because they have seen some things that perhaps they didn’t understand and they know that there’s a population out there with great needs. They’re just like us, but they’re in different life circumstances.

WACOAN: There’s been talk about nonprofits possibly losing some funding with the next national budget. How are y’all preparing for that?

McDermitt: We do a lot of fundraising. About half of our Meals on Wheels are supported through federal and state grants, but half of it comes from local support. We really try to raise $1 million a year — or close to it, maybe $850,000 — from local sources. In looking at what the budget may look like, we’re basically going to have do more local fundraising. I just don’t see that changing anytime soon.

WACOAN: Did you have a waitlist because you needed more volunteers or funds or both?

McDermitt: It was really more funds. Funding is not adequate to take care of all of the need there is.

Edwards: Caritas is funded more through private sources. The only governmental dollars we have coming in is a grant through the Texas Veterans Commission. It’s about $200,000, and it’s for our case management program.

But all of the remaining funds coming in are donations, fundraising events, grants and from revenues from the thrift stores and our Gifts-in-Kind progrm. We are not dependent so much on federal monies for the operations of Caritas.

However, there could be significant impact upon our clientele depending on what happens with the food stamp program. If there is a dramatic change in food stamps, I could see a significant rise in need for food assistance. That’s what we’re concerned about at this point more than any direct funding coming into Caritas.

WACOAN: Do either of your organizations have any big projects in the works?

McDermitt: We’re having a special event on October 5 with the Baylor Symphony to celebrate 50 years.

The other thing we’re working on right now is trying to work with various people in the medical community to see how we can help prevent early hospital readmission. Trying to capture the data that show if people have adequate nutrition, it keeps them from bouncing back into the hospital, particularly from congestive heart failure, diabetes, those kinds of things. Looking at how much more cost-effective it is to provide meals than emergency room visits. That’s one thing we’re really looking at doing.

Our assessment staff does a nutritional assessment where we’re able to determine if individuals are malnourished or at risk and are putting together some data to show improvement when they’re able to get meals.

WACOAN: What’s the event with the Baylor Symphony?

McDermitt: People who are there are going to be part of the symphony. They’re going to be seated with the symphony.

Edwards: We have some enhancements to our case management program that are grant-based that are coming up very soon. It’s going to be a $200,000 grant that allows us to continue case management services to the veterans. It’s going to allow us a little bit of expansion beyond McLennan County into the other five counties of the [Heart of Texas Council of Governments] region.

We’ve been working real closely with Prosper Waco, and it looks like the city of Waco will be working with Heart of Texas Goodwill Industries and Caritas to present an opportunity to work with local employers that may be wanting to be involved with helping out folks who may not have gotten the opportunity to have worked in the past. And for those people who are employed in the program, if they encounter any difficulties or problems, our case management services will kick in and help them try to deal with those problems. The bottom line is to keep them in a working situation so that they can maintain those jobs.

We’re looking forward to those two case management programs coming on line toward the end of the summer. What we’re excited about is that case management allows us to work intensely with individual families to identify those causal factors that may keep them in a low-income setting and help them identify pathways out of that. We’ve been very successful in helping people get jobs, [enroll] in educational programs or otherwise stabilize their home situations. This is an extension of those programs.

The bottom line is to begin to make more of an impact on the poverty level in the community and get people on a pathway where they’re not going to have to rely on Caritas or other organizations the rest of their lives, that they can be more independent and be able to sustain themselves.

WACOAN: When you look at the big picture of what your organizations are trying to do — feed the homebound elderly or trying to help low-income folks — is it ever overwhelming, as if the problem is too big to be solved?

McDermitt: Some days are like that. There are days when it does feel overwhelming. But I think that working together with groups, partnering with groups, helps to cope with that, so that you don’t feel like you’re the only one out there trying to take care of it all. It’s very helpful in trying to meet the needs of people we see.

Edwards: I guess that I’m a Pollyanna kind of guy. I’m always optimistic about things. If you look at the numbers, yeah, you can be overwhelmed. When you look at the number of people who came in, in May, you say, ‘Wow, this is so hard.’ But then you talk to people, and they say, ‘If it wasn’t for Caritas, we would be facing so many difficulties.’

We know today we are impacting positively people’s lives, and we know today those people are going to be able to take food home and be able to have food for their families. And we look at this overall big picture, and it’s an incremental kind of step that you take when you work in the community, when you work with other groups, maybe things that you never in your work lifetime see the fulfillment of, but you know you’re making headway in that direction.

That’s where we take heart, feeling like we’re helping people today and we have an eye to the future and trying to see how we’re trying to change things for folks down the road. That’s what kind of sustains us, plus having great support from the community. We know one another in the nonprofit sector, and having people you can talk to.

McDermitt: And our staff are just amazing. They’re in the trenches. They see the positive stories that come out, and that’s when you know what you’re doing is worthwhile.

Edwards: We started a project called Profiles of Hope. Each month, we examine our client base and find a family or individual that’s made really strong progress, and we’ll do a write-up on them and put that in our donor letters to people we’re thanking for their support. Or we’ll do something on Facebook.

You read those stories, and it’s really cool because we made, through our efforts, some real changes in these people. They’re doing a lot better because we had a presence in their lives. It’s going to take a long time to really lower the poverty rate, but as we make incremental changes, it’s going to be a positive thing.

McDermitt: That’s exactly right. When you look at the whole thing and all the numbers and all of that, you can say, ‘Oh.’ But when you look at the individual stories, that’s when you can feel positive and hopeful.

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