WASHINGTON, Maine — Galen Hill has worked as a professional bull rider, a lumberjack and an Air Force radar operator, but it’s his retirement “job” that is keeping him alive and happy.
For the past two decades, Hill has delivered meals to elderly people in Knox County five days a week as a volunteer driver for the local Meals on Wheels program.
Most mornings, Hill, who is 71 and lives in Washington, wakes up around 4 a.m. to start his emphysema treatments. By 6 a.m. he is out the door and on his way to help make hot meals for elderly people in Knox County. By 8 a.m. the food is ready to go and he starts his route, which traverses 80 miles and reaches nine people.
By 9:45 a.m., he reaches Linda Wirtz’s front door. On Friday morning, without knocking, he stepped onto Wirtz’s front porch. Daisy Mae, Wirtz’s fat Chihuahua, started yipping.
“Roast beef today,” Hill said.
“Oh good,” said Wirtz.
As she unwrapped a special Christmas bag with her meal, her face lit up. A local schoolchild, Nathaniel, had written her a story and made an ornament for her tree.
As Wirtz and Hill settled into two puffy blue recliners, they spoke as if they were old friends. They both are mischievous and tell jokes too crude to print in this family newspaper. The two met back in 2003 when Wirtz’s psoriasis got bad enough that her hands blistered and cracked and made it too painful to cook for herself. That’s when Hill began to bring her meals. Wirtz is one of about 100 elderly people in Knox County who receive meals from the program.
Wirtz typically eats her hot meal around 3 p.m. to make it work for both lunch and dinner. If she gets hungry at other times of the day, she’ll eat other foods that don’t require preparation, such as cheese and crackers and fruits.
Wirtz is able to give the $3.50 per meal donation that MCH, formerly Methodist Conference Home, asks for, but many people can’t.
Some of them are able to stay in their homes partly because of Meals on Wheels, a federally funded program, according to MCH executive director Lee Karker. The $200,000 program that doles out about 30,000 meals annually is sustained mostly by donations because the federal funding does not meet the area need, Karker said.
“This meets their social needs and keeps them independent in their own homes in their own communities, they don’t have to move somewhere else. It’s of benefit to the community too. It keeps Meals on Wheels folks from moving into higher levels of care, which many people are qualified for. That’s a burden on taxpayers, and it’s not as happy of a situation as living in your home,” Karker said.
For some people, the nutrition itself is critical. All of the meals are made in Rockland each morning and delivered a few hours later, Monday through Friday.
“I have people who this is the only meal they have. They can’t afford any more,” Hill said. “That’s why I do it. If I don’t go, people don’t eat.”
Aside from bringing elderly people meals five days a week, Hill also has been, quite literally, a lifesaver.
One man, he said, was so paranoid he always barricaded his door and jammed it closed with a shovel. Hill had conversations with the man, but only through the door — not face-to-face. One Friday, Hill said, he had a conversation with the man and then left a meal at the door as always. When he came back the next Monday, the meal was still at the door. The man wouldn’t answer.
“I broke into his house,” Hill said.
He found the man stuck between a chair and a bed. He had been there all weekend. Hill found him and got him to the hospital.
Wirtz also feels safer knowing that Hill visits her regularly because of the Meals on Wheels program.
“It gives me a sense of security knowing that Galen comes every day. In case anything happens,” she said.
Hill has found three people dead in their homes in his more than 20 years of volunteering.
“It’s a shock,” he said. “But you kind of expect it too. Death’s comin’. That’s what I tell the doctor when he gets on my case about smoking.”
Hill is a lighthearted joker and a bit of a tough guy. His smile is devious. He relishes telling jokes and funny stories.
“Here in Washington I showed up with a meal and the lady met me at the door with nothing on but barn boots and a smile. She said I was just in time. I didn’t stick around to see what I was in time for,” he said, laughing.
The socialization also is what Wirtz and other elderly Knox County people get out of the program.
“I try to have personal contact with each person; it’s as important as the meal,” Hill said.
“It’s more important,” Wirtz said.
“For some people I’m the only person they see for months,” Hill said.
Wirtz said she plans on getting meals until she can no longer live in her home. Hill said he’ll deliver meals to her until he’s in a coffin.
“I’ll do this until I die. As long as I’m able to get up and go,” he said. “I get more out of it than the people I deliver meals to. Before then, I was just waiting to die. I’d damaged my brain stem and couldn’t work. This gives me a reason to wake up in the morning.”
For information on the Knox County’s Meals on Wheels program, call MCH at 594-2740 or visit the organization at 46 Summer St. in Rockland.