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Gas prices may brake Meals on Wheels

Gas prices are back up to $3 a gallon, and among those hardest hit by the rising cost of fuel are the volunteers of Meals on Wheels.

"It's really getting expensive now," lamented Juanita Tillmon, 80, of Buffalo, who has been a volunteer with Meals on Wheels of Western New York for 27 years.

Living on a fixed income and taking care of her 103-year-old mother, Tillmon said she has had to resort to filling her gas tank with a little bit of gas every few days to make the most of her money.

Tillmon receives a small stipend from Meals on Wheels that helps cover some of the costs for delivering hot meals to two dozen homebound seniors five times a week. But she worries that the reimbursement won't be enough if fuel prices keep edging up.

"I'll continue until it gets to $4," she vowed.

Tillmon's situation is one shared by many of Meals on Wheels of Western New York's 1,800 volunteers, mostly retirees with limited incomes.

Officials are worried about what the future has in store for the agency.

The rise in gas prices over the last couple of years has already taken a heavy toll on the agency's volunteer base.

In 2005, Meals on Wheels lost 301 volunteers but attracted 275, nearly replenishing its ranks, agency officials said.

Last year, the agency lost 370 and gained only 212 new ones.

"There's no easy solution to this," said the agency's spokesman, Tom Lucia. "We're all kind of scared. If we don't have the volunteers we need, we can't exist. This is a big deal for us."

Further, more volunteers are beginning to ask for stipends, Lucia said.

The nonprofit agency spent $2,627 in gas reimbursements last month, up 40 percent from March 2006.

In addition, 151 volunteers asked for the stipends, 11 more than in March 2006.

Lynette Mack, the site manager for Meals on Wheels at Our Savior Church on Brunswick Boulevard, said she has had an especially hard time finding new volunteers.

"It's hard to recruit in the city," Mack said, pointing out that the need for food deliveries is highest within Buffalo's boundary.

Costly gas is the top reason people give for not being able to help out, she said.

"I haven't had a new driver in over a year," Mack said.

She said many of her volunteers wouldn't be able to participate without their stipends -- but she can only approve a limited amount of reimbursement.

"It's a hard sell," she said.

High gas prices are also hurting suburban volunteers.

One longtime Orchard Park volunteer recently had to quit, citing the gas cost as the reason.

"As sad as it is, I simply cannot afford to continue on," the volunteer wrote.

Meals on Wheels withheld the name to protect the identity of the volunteer.

"As a retiree on a fixed income, I just can't justify driving 15 miles a day, four days a week. . . . It is just too much," the driver wrote.

With the agency spending more on reimbursements, its cost per meal is also rising.

Meals on Wheels currently spends $8.50 for the two meals -- one hot and one cold -- delivered a day. Clients are asked to pay $6 a day if they are able.

"A lot don't pay anything," Lucia said. "If you need it, you'll get the meal anyway."

As a result, the agency ends up receiving an average of $3 for each two-meal delivery.

"As that gap grows larger," he said, "that's when the agency has to find money from corporate and personal donations."

He added that the costs won't be passed on to the homebound and elderly who rely on the food deliveries.

The organization has been trying to find new ways to save money.

"We're planning routes as efficiently as possible, shortening them up as much as possible," Lucia said.

The group has also tried to recruit nontraditional volunteers, seeking corporations willing to allow workers to do deliveries during lunch hours and high school students needing to do community service.

it also is showing volunteers how to write off their mileage on their income taxes. Mack said she believes that donations of gas cards could help.

"During the summer, grocery stores donate water bottles for us to give out," she said. "We want to be able to supply the drivers with gas cards."

Lucia said Meals on Wheels knows that stipends are critical in keeping drivers and will do what it can to help.

But, he added, "We're relying on the compassionate nature of our volunteers. If you don't need [the reimbursement] please don't ask for it."

And, of course, the agency would be more than happy to find new volunteers.

For information about donating to Meals on Wheels of Western New York, call 822-2002.

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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