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Serving meals and spreading good will

Stories about Susan Hittle's grandmother feeding neighbors in a small West Virginia town during the Depression inspired her to volunteer at Meals on Wheels, where she discovered her own passion for the work and a talent for organizing eclectic bus tours.

It has been 10 years since she and her husband moved from North Tonawanda to Lewiston, but she has kept up her connection to the organization and the people who work from the agency's headquarters on Ridge Road behind the high school.

"Once we get you in the door, you never want to go," said Hittle, who is vice president of the board and has been a volunteer for about 11 years. "I think is a place where people can actually feel effective."

The month of May has been dedicated to North Tonawanda Meals on Wheels by the city's mayor. The organization has a roster of about 120 volunteers who pair up to take nine routes in North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda, and deliver daily meals to about 110 people.

Hittle devotes most of her time to preparing meals in the kitchen, where the team of volunteers feels like family.

"That makes for a lot of laughing," said Hittle, a retired clinical audiologist. "We try to hold it down to a dull roar, but that doesn't always happen."

Three years ago, after her husband retired, he volunteered and then took a part-time job as assistant cook.

That's about when the convivial atmosphere inspired Hittle to try something new with the group and help raise money. So many people had been talking about bus tours as a nice way to go on an outing, she decided to organize one to raise money: a trip to the Arcade & Attica Railroad in which Civil War re-enactors commandeer the train.

It was so popular that she scheduled three trips for this year.

The first is June 9, a $65 trip she's calling, "A Springtime Adventure." It starts at 11 a.m. at the Meals on Wheels' parking lot and goes on to Batavia to make stops in Batavia at the Holland Land Office Museum and Oliver's Chocolates -- "We always say in the kitchen, 'Chocolate's one of the major food groups.'" The finale is in Corfu: a "comical, mystery dinner show" at Yorkshire Hall at an old mansion called Holiday Hollow. (For information call,297-4557.)

What do people need to understand better about North Tonawanda Meals on Wheels?

They started out 40 some years ago with three churches. Then the client base became so large that they became a facility that was only Meals on Wheels. That's how we came to North Tonawanda. It's a real community grass roots kind of thing.

There's a lot of people that fall through the cracks in any community system.

I can't tell you the number of calls I've gotten, "My parents' nutrition has improved." A lot of people are saved from going into nursing homes and retirement homes because of that. That's another reason why we do it.

Is there a delivery that stands out?

We give birthday cakes to our clients. I walked in with the meal and the birthday cake. It's a piece of cake. It's like a small round bakery cake. It was wonderful to be able to say, "happy birthday" and to give her hug. She showed me her son had sent her some flowers. Just an older person sharing a happy occasion.

What is it like making deliveries?

Getting out of the car, ringing the doorbell. It is such a humbling experience. You'd think you grew the produce yourself. For some people, unfortunately, we are the only human contact. Their relatives are out of town. Unfortunately, they may be alone. They may not have anybody else.

I was there when a lady had fallen and broken a hip several years ago. We were the ones who had alerted the ambulance to come and get her.

Meals on Wheels is an independent nonprofit organization?

We're not subsidized in any way. We charge for the meals. We do pay rent. There are utilities. There are maintenance and upkeep. We're not subsidized by anybody, so we make up the difference through activities in May.

You charge for meals?

The price of the meal depends on the amount. Some people prefer two meals a day. A hot meal and a cold meal. Some people can pay with food stamps. Sometimes an outside agency will pay for the meals. We depend on the price of the meals and what we fundraise. I dream of a corporate sponsor or an organization that would be a guaranteed sponsor, but it just doesn't seem to happen.

Why bus tours?

It's a thank-you to both volunteers and the community.

How did you get started?

People were talking abut bus tours. They're pretty popular with people that don't want to drive.

What other trips have you done?

I've been trying to do something different. We did a trip down to Amish country. To keep costs down, I have to have 50 people to make the bus go. We can usually accommodate 54 people. We rent from Grand Tours.

There are more bus tours ahead?

Aug. 11. It's going to be great.

That's going to be a repeat of the Attica & Arcade Railroad Civil War re-enactment.

A lot of people will replicate actual articles of clothing using authentic materials. Full skirts with the hoops. Civil War hairstyles. The authentic wool uniforms.

I don't know how they survive in August. I would love to dress up, but I would melt. There's no way.

After the train ride, we're going to have an old-fashioned ice cream social.

On Sept. 22, we're going to the Made in America store outside East Aurora. Then Vidler's. Then we're having lunch at the Old Orchard Inn. I just wanted to sort of salute "Made in America" and local articles and local craftsman and local businesses.

What kind of reaction have you had to the tours?

I would say I've been so pleased and so charmed. We may have about 30 regulars that come.

It has been a lot of fun. I get to explore. I get to help Meals on Wheels. It's very satisfying for me. I don't know how better to say it. It's work, of course. It's kind of a labor of love.

We've not had a serious problem on any of the tours. They've been very gracious in letting me know that they've had a good time.

I even have a lady who has asked me about the September trip already, and she said, "I'm going to be out of town!" That was so dear of her.

We have an anniversary couple, hopefully, in August. That's why I'm doing the ice cream social to do something special for them. They're history buffs, and a friend of theirs wants to help them celebrate their anniversary. I was trying to think of something in the middle of August that would be special to do.

Where are you from?

I'm an Air Force brat. I'm from a lot of places. We've been here over 25 years. You fall in love with a place. You fall in love with its people. You fall in love with its history, it's opportunities.

So this volunteer gig is too good to give up?

We have volunteers that have become lifelong friends from coming to Meals on Wheels. I have a friend, a girlfriend, she and I swear we must have been sisters in a former life.

I'm an only child. For me to have someone who feels like a sister, it's a pretty special relationship. We do what girlfriends do together. She makes you laugh. She'll hold you if you need to cry. We get together for lunch. They have a cottage on Lake Ontario. We're usually there throughout the summer.

The president and the coordinator, they've become like parents, I think. They're dear, dear friends. It is a family.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.