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Twenty-five years ago, six people received visits and lunches from a new organization, North Tonawanda Meals on Wheels.

Almost 550,000 meals later, a small group of workers -- aided by a dedicated corps of volunteers -- still brings nourishment for the body and the spirit every day to about 100 people who can't care for themselves.

Two women who delivered meals on that first day, Mary Major and Esther Greinert, both of North Tonawanda, are still active volunteers.

"I thought it was a good idea to help people who were housebound," said Mrs. Major. "Then, when you do the route, you do realize it's necessary,"

Head cook Berniece Burke has worked for Meals on Wheels more than 10 years, first at St. Mark's Lutheran Church School and now at the spacious new quarters in the Twin Cities Community Outreach Building, on Ridge Street next to Sportsplex.

Mrs. Burke, who got experience by cooking for her own eight children, makes up menus based on hospital dietitians' advice and her clients' tastes.

"They don't care for anything that is real spicy," she said, recalling a Mexican-style chicken dish that got the thumbs-down.

But within the description of what coordinator Joy Welch calls "just home-type foods" are such favorites as meatloaf, stroganoff and stew, all made from scratch in the gleaming kitchen.

Mrs. Welch said Mrs. Burke and her assistant, Donna Berner, cook between 85 and 100 meals every weekday.

Each person on a route receives a hot meal packed in an aluminum plate that is meant to be eaten right then, and they can also order a cold sandwich and snack to eat later. The hot meals are carried to the cars in a lightweight cloth thermal bag, while the cold meals are moved in an insulated box that resembles an ice chest.

The volunteers bring more than food, Mrs. Welch said. They are sometimes asked to replace a light bulb, mail a letter or get something from a shelf.

"I'm sure some of them are very lonely," Mrs. Welch said of the clients, "although some people have very great families that might be working during the day."

The volunteers have also occasionally saved a life.

"I have found people who have fallen" and had to wait, helpless, until their meal delivery arrived, Mrs. Major said.

A packet sent with each volunteer outlines the steps to take if they find someone who has fallen or who has become ill.

The people who benefit from Meals on Wheels look out for their volunteer delivery persons, too.

"If Mary isn't there one day, they will ask where she is," Mrs. Welch said.

And despite thousands of hours of work by hundreds of dedicated volunteers over the years, the North Tonawanda office of Meals on Wheels is "having a desperate time," Mrs. Welch said. Four volunteer workers have died in the past four months, she said, making scheduling more and more difficult.

A driver and a meal-delivery person work together on each route, which includes an average of 10 stops. The volunteers arrive at the headquarters by 10:45 a.m., then spend about an hour delivering on the route.

The entire shift is "no more than two hours," Mrs. Welch said, although many volunteers choose to arrive early to have coffee and socialize before they start on their routes.

Most volunteers do one shift a week, she said.

Most people who receive the meals, priced at $4.50 a day for the regular meals and $5.50 a day for the special diabetic meals, are referred by social workers, visiting nurses or family members.

Each person who requests the meals is interviewed by a caseworker before being signed up for the program.

To volunteer to drive, deliver, work in the kitchen, or to refer someone for Meals on Wheels in North Tonawanda, call 693-1663.

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