Member Spotlight: Meals on Wheels for WNY

To celebrate our members and their accomplishments, we have started a Member Spotlight blog series.

This month, Partnership Member Meals on Wheels for Western New York shares information about partnership opportunities, their upcoming Plate Expectations event and the value of networking with our region’s business community.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Tara A. Ellis, President and CEO of Meals on Wheels for Western New York, to learn more about why they’re proud to be a Partnership member.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Tara. While there’s no doubt that your organization is well-known in the community, I was hoping you could provide me with a brief background? How did you get started in WNY?

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Tara Ellis, CEO and President, in the lobby

A: Meals on Wheels was founded in 1969 by a group of grass-roots activists as well as some established community organizations. It was an incredible non-partisan, non-denominational effort.

It originally was started under a different name (FANS: Food Action Network.) We served the first meals to 25 residents on the West side of Buffalo and the program grew rapidly.

Then in 1995, our sister organization (Meals on Wheels Foundation of WNY) was formed to make sure that the organization had the long-term, sustainable funding that it needed to survive.

Since it was founded in 1969, the mission has been focused on the basic and most critical of needs for home-bound and disabled seniors in Western New York.

Today we serve about 900,000 meals to 3,600 unique home-bound clients each year. We do that through 25 satellite sites throughout the county.

We also produce about 250,000 meals per year for congregate dining. This is done through 45 satellite sites throughout the county.

Those congregate dining meals are delivered to clients that are still mobile. However, even those clients really need our services. For more than half of them, that meal is their only meal each day. So, even though they are mobile doesn’t mean they have easy access to food sources.

Q: That’s great to hear.

Meals on Wheels logoA: Yes and the program is still growing. This year, we added weekly ethnic meals to select congregate sites and also plan to pilot three new diets for our home-bound clients.

We are also adding routes in areas that we have high demand so we can further serve those individuals and meet the community’s needs.

According to Meals on Wheels in America, we are actually the second-largest program in the nation out of the 5,000 Meals on Wheels programs. We hit that record when we delivered our 25th million meal in 2012.

As of the end of last year, we’ve delivered 27 million home delivered meals and 11.5 million congregate meals.

A few things that make our program unique is that we have six registered dieticians, as well as a full staff of social workers that work closely with care-givers, clients and volunteers. We have customized diets and ancillary services to ensure that our clients can enjoy their best health.

We also offer nutritional supplements for our clients, as well as a book delivery program called Enlightenment on Wheels, where free books are delivered to clients with their meals.

We also have an angel-card program, through which clients get cards, bookmarks and other home-made items delivered with their meals that we send out for birthdays and holidays.

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Tara Ellis along with Mayor Byron Brown, Site Manager Sandy Carroll and an East Buffalo volunteer as the group prepares to deliver through the “Champions for Meals” program

Q: That’s amazing. I know that you recently joined as a Partnership member a few months ago. What inspired you to get involved?

A: I think the primary key was the opportunity for expanding relationship building. The networking events are a great opportunity for our team to connect with others in the community and spread the word about what we are doing.

We see businesses and young professionals as an opportunity for increased awareness.

We also want to share information about the facility that we have for food preparation. So, we really think that the relationship building will be key for us.

Q: As a local non-profit, you must face your own set of obstacles. What current challenges or opportunities do you face that you think the Partnership might be able to assist in?

A: As you know, with any not-for-profit, funding is critical. Despite the continual increase in demand for these services, the funding hasn’t increased.

That being said, we are always looking to diversify. As we create more options for high-quality meals, we want to ensure that we can continue do that for any organization at a great rate.

Q: Have you had any recent accomplishments that you’d like the community to be aware of?

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Tara Ellis with Ruth – one of MOW’s long-time volunteers at their annual volunteer recognition event

A: One key accomplishment is that we continue to see our volunteers recognized in various ways in the community – and not just for the work they do with us.

For example, one of our volunteers was recently recognized as “senior of the month” for saving a client’s life in Orchard Park.

Shortly after that, another volunteer was recognized as “senior of the year” for her dedication to Meals on Wheels and a variety of other organizations – both by the Erie County Department of Senior Services.

The volunteers and the touch-points they make with our clients make an incredible difference to our clients’ lives; this really is a lifeline organization.

Lastly, we just unveiled a new 450-kw generator system at Meals on Wheels. This nearly $250,000 project was more than three years in the making and I am thrilled that it is finally up and running, making sure that Meals on Wheels for WNY will not be slowed down by a power emergency.

It provides an extra layer of security for our clients and also ensures that we can feed the broader community in the event of an emergency.

Q: Definitely. So, are there any special projects or events that you’re working on?

A: Yes, definitely! We have been doing an annual fundraiser every year for 12 years called Plate Expectations. This year, we have a lot of exciting changes in store for the event.

The event, which will take place from 5-9 p.m. on September 2 at Silo City, will have live music, beer and wine, and catering from Dinosaur BBQ, amongst other activities.

We are hoping to grow the event and attract some younger people to our mission. We want to show the community what we are doing, provide them the chance to learn more about our mission and most importantly, make sure everyone has a great time.

We hope that lots of members of the community will come out and show their support for Meals on Wheels.

Q: That sounds like a great time. I’ll definitely be there! As I’m sure you’re aware, our members benefit from the ability to work together in various capacities such as procurement. Do you have any opportunities to do business with fellow Partnership members?

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Tara Ellis with one of the Meals on Wheels clients

A: From a corporate, philanthropic perspective, we want to give local organizations the opportunity to provide their employees the chance to get involved and deliver meals once a week. This is a no-cost, easy way for organizations to become a community partner and make a real difference in the community. Not to mention, we really have a desperate need in the city.

We also hope to build more partnerships to create adopt-a-route opportunities which provide companies and groups a way to give back to the community.

Similarly, we have a Community Center where organizations can rent out space to host events. We also provide food service.

Some organizations are in the people business and, while they do have food service needs, do not want to be in the food business. We can help meet those food needs.

Our real hope is that as we build relationship, we can build those business partnerships as well.

Q: Are there any current opportunities for employment or involvement with Meals on Wheels for WNY? I am sure you have plenty of volunteer opportunities.

A: Volunteerism is always an option! In regards to employment opportunities, our website is always the place to check.

Currently, we are looking for a full-time, licensed registered dietician. We are also looking for a part-time business development specialist to help with the business development and partnership opportunities we were discussing earlier.

Q: What would you say you’re most looking forward to benefiting from as a member of the Partnership in the upcoming year?

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Tara Ellis, CEO & President of Meals on Wheels for WNY

A: I really think that it’s the deep network of committed professionals across the community. We think that being a member of the Partnership is a great way to build those relationships and leverage opportunities to work with other organizations to further benefit the local community.

Interested in being a part of our Member Spotlight blog series? Contact our Digital Marketing Manager, Julia Jornsay-Silverberg.