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More than just a nutritious meal

New center has capacity to provide more senior lunches
by: Jim Clark Diners at the Rockwood Loaves & Fishes lunch center give their orders to volunteers who serve them their meal.

Volunteers are spoiling the seniors who eat lunch at Loaves and Fishes' newest location in Rockwood.

Patrons come into the large room that seats 75, sit at one of many empty tables and volunteers wait on them hand and foot.

That's because only about 30 seniors are coming to lunch Monday through Friday at the new Rockwood Center, located in The Rockwood Building, 124 N.E. 181st Ave.

Carolyn Williams, who manages the Ambleside Loaves and Fishes Center in Gresham and the new Rockwood Center, knows the Rockwood location is ideal for serving hungry seniors in the area.

It's blocks from a MAX station and close to housing that appeals to seniors on a fixed income. Liz LaPlante, the Rockwood Center's on-site manager, agreed.

'This area has so much need and so many seniors in the 55-and-over (mobile home) parks,' she said. 'So this is an ideal setting.'

'We just need to get the word out,' Williams said.

Loaves and Fishes provides low-cost, nutritionally balanced meals to those 60 and older at 36 centers across Multnomah, Washington and Clark counties. Suggested donation is $3 per meal, but any amount is appreciated. To preserve donor privacy, each center's donation box is lined with padding so coins don't clink.

'And no one's turned away,' Williams said. 'For some people, this is the one meal they have for the day.'

And it's not necessarily due to financial straights.

'A lot of seniors, once they're by themselves, they neglect their nutrition.' Whether it's too much hassle to cook a meal for one, or depression from losing a spouse, many seniors just don't eat balanced meals, Williams said.

Lots of people know about the Loaves and Fishes center in the Multnomah County East Building on Northeast Eighth Street in Gresham. The center dates back about 25 years and used to be housed in the old senior center off Powell Boulevard.

Second location needed

Despite its capacity to seat 120 people, it can get a bit crowded. And with thousands of baby boomers turning 60 every day in the greater metropolitan area, Loaves and Fishes knew it needed a second location to serve East Multnomah County. Other than the Ambleside Center, the closest one is the Cherry Blossom Center near Mall 205.

Loaves and Fishes also delivers 270 meals a day to housebound seniors east of 162nd Avenue including Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview, Wood Village and Corbett through Meals on Wheels.

And yet, since opening on Monday, Oct. 10, about half the seats at the new Rockwood Center sit empty at lunchtime.

Sure, it's new. Seniors might not know about it. But there could be other issues at play, Williams said.

Volunteers routinely hear hungry seniors say someone else needs the meal more.

'I can get by on peanut butter and jelly, or cheese and crackers,' they say.

Others worry about paying the suggested donation, but Williams said that shouldn't hold anyone back from coming in for lunch.

'If they can donate 50 cents, that helps,' she said.

Some seniors no longer drive. Williams said many diners carpool or use Ride Connection, a free door-to-door transportation service.

Yet other seniors are isolated and nervous about venturing out on their own.

'We always say, 'It's more than a meal,' ' Williams said, because in addition to nutrition, each meal delivers a helping of socialization.

A chance for someone who lives alone to hear a voice coming from something other than the television.

A reason to get out of pajamas and leave the house.

Finding purpose

Nobody knows that better than Lucy McCormick, an 85-year-old volunteering dynamo at the Ambleside Center. Eight years ago, the Gresham resident found herself widowed after 48 years of marriage.

'I was lost. I didn't know what to do with myself,' she said. 'It was hard to go out of the house alone.'

For three years she sat at home.

'I crocheted a lot. I crocheted like crazy,' she said. Then something her husband said shortly before he died hit her. 'You've got a good five to six years left,' he said. 'Don't waste them.'

So, the retired waitress - she began waiting tables at the age of 15, when she got a job at Johnny's Café by the Gresham theater - began volunteering at the Ambleside Center.

For the past five years, she's greeted people, fetched silverware and coffee, and brought lunch to those who can't stand in line.

'I love it,' she said. 'It has been the best thing in the world for me. Well, I think that's what keeps me going.'

Jim Beekman, 65, also originally was interested in volunteering when he came to the Rockwood Center a few weeks ago. But a malignant brain tumor prevented him from working in the kitchen.

Now, he walks over for good food and 'universal conversation.' On Monday, Oct. 24, he dined on beef burgundy, rotini pasta, mixed vegetables and cake while chatting with Chistato Tara, another local resident who walked over for lunch.

'The sign outside doesn't tell the whole story,' he said, gesturing to aptly named sandwich board on 181st Avenue with the words 'Senior Dining Today!'

'There is a great social benefit,' he said. 'People who live alone suffer from loneliness. Loneliness is a big negative. So if they have a place to come to feel part of the process of life, this does them a lot of good.'

He stops for a moment to say hi to Gloria, another diner, and continues.

'And the more people who take part in it the better,' he said. 'Because it gives a sense of family. You see people out on the sidewalk and say, 'Hello, good morning.' Or in their language, 'Cómo estás?' You make them feel like they're participating on the big screen.'

Loaves and Fishes centers

• Ambleside, in the Multnomah County East Building, 600 N.E. Eighth St., Room 155, 503-953-8201

• Rockwood, in The Rockwood Building, 124 N.E. 181st Ave., 503-953-8156

• For door-to-door transportation, call Ride Connection, 503-226-0700

• To volunteer for the lunch program or for Meals on Wheels, call Liz LaPlante at the Rockwood location, 503-953-8156, or Carolyn Williams at the Ambleside location, 503-953-8201

Upcoming events

• The new Rockwood Center's open house is at 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 4, on the ground floor of The Rockwood Building, 124 N.E. 181st Ave. Loaves and Fishes officials and local politicians will welcome guests to a special meal and take part in a ceremonial slicing of a loaf of bread.

• Denim and Diamonds is a third-annual fundraiser for Loaves and Fishes from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Ambleside Center, 600 N.E. Eighth St. The event features a dinner of barbecued chicken, dancing to country music and a raffle. Tickets are $10 and proceeds benefit the Ambleside and Rockwood centers.