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Washtenaw United: Ypsilanti Meals On Wheels Holds Steady During Pandemic And Preps For The Holidays

Alison Foreman
Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels

We are approaching the end of  the year, and soon, we'll be meeting with friends and family for special meals at Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays. Of course, we can't forget the many elderly folks who don't have access to healthy and good food. That is a situation made more difficult by the ongoing pandemic. Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels continues to meet the challenges, but it isn't easy. WEMU's David Fair talked it over with its president and CEO, Alison Foreman. 

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area.  And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services.  It is a community voice.  It is 'Washtenaw United.'




President and Chief Executive Officer Alison Foreman has worked with Ypsilanti area non-profits as an employee and volunteer for more than 15 years.

She is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in juvenile justice and a master’s degree in public administration. Alison worked with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (formerly the Borders Group Foundation) before joining YMOW in 2013.

Alison serves on the boards of the Ypsilanti Area Community Fund, Washtenaw Leaders Advisory and the Area Agency on Aging 1B Diabetes Program Advisory Group and is a member of the Ypsilanti Kiwanis Club. She is a former 8-year member of the SOS community services board, an organization which provides transitional housing, food and therapeutic programs for local children.

In recent years, Alison has shared her knowledge of senior services funding as a guest on NPR's “All Things Considered” and CNN's “The Lead” with Jake Tapper.

Alison lives in Ypsilanti Township with her husband, Nate, and their two Devon Rex cats, Ray and Jen. Alison and Nate enjoy hiking, fishing and spending time outdoors.


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Since 1973, Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels has been providing nutritious meals throughout Ypsilanti and eastern Washtenaw County. YMOW has been funded by UWWC through grant programs such as Coordinated Funding, Capacity Building grants, and most recently the FY21 Opportunity Fund, in which they piloted the YMOW Chore and Laundry Service program for the home-bound older adults to provide them essential services as we move through the pandemic and beyond.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and, as we speak, we're about a month and a half away from Thanksgiving. We're also still in a public health crisis and global pandemic. While we start making those plans for a holiday feast, it's worth remembering that food insecurity remains a huge issue right here in our community. And among the hardest hit are our aging friends. I'm David Fair, and welcome to Washtenaw United. It's our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity. Our guest today is also preparing for holiday meals and assessing and carrying forward the lessons learned through the pandemic. Alison Foreman is president and CEO of Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels. And it's nice to talk with you again, Alison. 

Alison Foreman: It's also great to talk with you again, David. I know it's been a while since we've been able to chat, and I'm so glad that we can talk about everything that's been going on during the pandemic and prepping for the holidays. 

David Fair: So, there was that point in the pandemic, Alison, where your delivery volunteers and staff were unable to make direct contact with the elderly people you were helping feed. That had to be an emotional toll for all involved. 

Alison Foreman: There really was. I mean, we pivoted really quickly, so we kind of were a little bit ahead of the game. Like, we had been watching what was going on with the pandemic overseas. And we kind of got started, like, in late February, very early March, and started to identify ways to be safer, to visit with our clients, and deliver their meals. And so, we had started talking with Michigan Medicine, who produces our meals for us, about ways that we could make changes to be safer. By the second week of March, when it came down when we needed to start sheltering in place, we were already prepared and pivoted from six days a week of meal delivery, down to three days a week of meal delivery, but still providing seven days of nutrition. So, we went from serving Monday through Saturday to delivering on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And so, we provided our hot lunchtime meals on those days, and then we provided three additional meals for them until we'd be back on that Wednesday. And we went from going inside homes and hugging and smiling to meeting people at the door, wearing masks, and socially distancing. So, there was a big shift for us to not coming into the home any longer. 

David Fair: That makes a difference, too, because beyond delivering food, being able to have that contact with those you serve allows for drivers, staff, and volunteers to make some assessment about a person's well-being. And, if need be, you can then reach out to others to make sure they get the help and assistance they need. Were those efforts hampered because of that lack of more personalized contact? 

Alison Foreman: So, it started out as being a bit of a challenge. And, very quickly, our staff pivoted to allow for connecting with other resources. And within the first month of the pandemic, we launched a friendly caller program called Only a Ring Away. So, our staff and many volunteers that started out with about 50 friendly callers. And so, they called at least twice a week to catch up with the seniors, to ask them how their day was going, to ask them questions about how they're feeling about being isolated, what items they might need to care for themselves in the home. So, all of that information was then put into Survey Monkey, and it went back to our social workers who would then connect them with resources in the community. Additionally, our staff, one of my staff members, she really missed being able to hug people and smile. She learned to juggle. And so, outside of people's houses, they'd be at their window, and she'd juggle for them. 

David Fair: Oh, that's amazing. 

Alison Foreman: Yeah, it was cute that she did that.

David Fair: Now, as we have gradually begun to reopen our communities, are you back to full operation? 

Alison Foreman: We are not, because we serve the most vulnerable, and we've seen a breakthrough COVID cases, we know we're still dealing with those who are the most vulnerable in our population. 85 percent of our clients have two or more significant medical diagnosis that make them more susceptible to the pandemic. And so, we talked with our sister program, Ann Arbor Meals on Wheels, who also operates out of the same commissary of Michigan Medicine. And we talked with folks over at the hospital system, and they suggested we continue to stay on three days a week and through about winter, through the end of winter of 2022. So, for another three to six months, we're going to do that. But we had been making plans to reopen on September 13th and two weeks before that with a lot of guidance. And we had seen the COVID cases going back up. We decided to stay on the three days a week. 

David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels President Alison Foreman continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. So, we talked about all the pivots and adaptations that needed to be made in service. In what I believe can be called an expansion, you have a specifically funded program with the acronym CAPABLE--Community Aging in Place, Advancing Better Living for Elders. This is a demonstration project in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University. How did that come about? 

Alison Foreman: So, that came about back in 2018, we applied through the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation Vital Seniors competition, and we won an award of half a million dollars for that program. So then, we stood that program up with support from Johns Hopkins University, and we launched our first cohort of about just prior to the pandemic. So then, we had to shut down for about six months. And then we recently relaunched it in June as a hybrid model. So, we're doing more of the visit virtually, and we're limiting the contact in the home. But when we do go into the home, the occupational therapist is going in, and the nurse is going in to assess the home to make sure it's safe for the senior. And we're doing things like assisting them with learning how to use a walker, reducing trip hazards in the household, putting assistive devices in the bathroom, so it makes it easier to shower. So chairs, detachable showerheads, grab bars. And so, the OT absolutely needs to go in and be able to make sure that those are at appropriate heights for the client, so that, you know, when they're grabbing for it that the right height so that they prevent a slip. 

David Fair: What has been the response from the clientele to this kind of more personalized service? 

Alison Foreman: So, it's a targeted program for specific clients with small risk or if they've gotten out of the hospital. And so, if a client is referred to it after a fall, we've been assisting them with this program. And many clients have said they have felt empowered through the CAPABLE program because they work on action plans that aren't just driven by the clinician, by the nurse and the OT. The nurse and the OT say, "OK, so you've had a fall. How is that change, what you need to do in your home? What is it you want to get back to doing?" And it's always surprising. You know, it's not always I want to get back to, you know, walking around the park. A lot of times, it's just want to be able to safely get in and out of the bathtub safely, go up and down the stairs-- 

David Fair: Things we all often take for granted. 

Alison Foreman: Right. And so, they work on this as a skill set with them through time throughout, you know, three to six months, so that they work on those skills. And, at the end, they always tell us I feel empowered. And now, I can advocate for myself.

David Fair: Is it intended to be offered in perpetuity, or does it have an expiration date? 

Alison Foreman: So, it does have an expiration date. So, we are operating this pilot program through the end of 2021, and we also have funding through 2022. And then, the hope is that eventually this could be covered under your Medicare or Medicaid benefits. So, if you are released after having a fall, your insurance could pay for you to have a CAPABLE intervention for a few months, which would be really helpful for most of our seniors who live on less than eleven hundred dollars a month. 

David Fair: Hopefully, we're beginning to exit the pandemic process. But what are the lessons you've learned that can be carried forward to the benefit of those who serve and to the organization in and of itself? 

Alison Foreman: So, what we have learned is that having the flexibility to change our delivery schedule has been really beneficial for clients from now that things are opening back up. We're finding that, you know, many of our clients, you know, nutrition is a barrier. Transportation is a barrier. Getting to and from doctors and appointments are a barrier. So, rather than needing to be home Monday through Saturday at a core time of eleven to 1:30 to get your meals. So ,a lot of folks like that we have an opportunity that they can get more meals on a Monday, so that they can be off the program on a Tuesday and go visit their doctor and not feel stressed by having to get back by a certain time. Otherwise, they won't have a nutritious meal to eat for the day or for the next day. 

David Fair: Well, sometimes eating is for nutrition. Sometimes, it's for fun. And, as I mentioned at the outset, we're a little more than a month away from Thanksgiving. And I imagine planning and preparation is already underway. So many of our elderly end up having to spend the holiday alone. How does Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels try and make it the day better? 

Alison Foreman: So, our kitchen at Michigan Medicine produces a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings: homemade pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, homemade sister rolls, oven-roasted turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, a fruit tray. And then, we also do decorative holiday Thanksgiving cookies that are from the Terry Bakery in Ypsilanti. 

David Fair: It's already a better holiday than I'm going to have. For those in the community that want to contribute in some way, how can we best do that? 

Alison Foreman: So, there's quite a few ways and we've pivoted how volunteers can get involved with us as well, because we know not everyone feels comfortable being back out in the community. Always being volunteers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to deliver meals on between 11 and one. Other options are they can become a friendly caller if they want to, you know, share an hour or two of their time every week for three to six months, we can connect them with a senior who would appreciate the friendly call. They can collect items for our personal care pantry. They can buy greeting cards at the holidays for the seniors. Those are all really great ways folks can get involved with us. And if that's, you know, if folks have more means, if they wish to donate, on average, it's seven dollars a day to provide two meals a day. So, people can contribute, you know, that way as well. Also looking for new board members. So, if you are a great strategic thinker, we would always love to have people join our board as well. 

David Fair: Getting involved is the best way to help solve, right? 

Alison Foreman: Absolutely.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for the time today, Alison. I do appreciate it. 

Alison Foreman: Thanks so much, David, and thanks everyone in the community for your ongoing support of programs like Meals on Wheels and for nutrition in our community. It has made a very, very big difference for us over the last 20 months.

David Fair: That is Alison Foreman, president and CEO of Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels and our guest on Washtenaw United. This weekly feature series is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County. And you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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