Nonprofit connects seniors to groceries, companionship

Published 8:31 am Friday, November 30, 2018

By Jon Collins

MPR News/90.1 FM

Betty Allen, 91, has vivid memories of what it took to put food on the table during the Great Depression.

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She grew up in a farming family with eight brothers and one sister in central Mississippi. When the cotton fields were too wet to work, her dad would shoot rabbit. Her mom would fry it up and make a big pot of gravy.

“When I’m really hungry here, and get kind of down sometimes, I’ll just make a plate of gravy and biscuits,” Allen said. “Boy, they should put that on the medicine list.”

These days, Allen lives in senior housing in Wayzata, where she’s known by neighbors for her cooking — especially gravy.

Every Monday, the ingredients for her meals arrive at her apartment door in a bright green crate.

The groceries are delivered courtesy of a nonprofit group called Help At Your Door. Their mission is to help seniors live independently as long as possible. It’s the sort of service that may be increasingly in demand as the state’s population ages.

Grocery delivery day is an event for residents of Allen’s building. As soon as they see the bright green van pull up, Allen says people grab their walkers and head up to their apartments to wait for the deliveries.

“They treat us like like we had just paid $100 for that box of groceries,” Allen said of the delivery drivers. “They’re hot and perspiring, and yet they they take the time to make it good for us. It’s like a friend coming in.”

About 1,300 clients each week give Help At Your Door grocery lists or request other services. Some pay for the groceries outright, while others receive products from food banks. Payment depends on what the client can afford.

For many relying on Help At Your Door, it’s not only about food, but companionship, too.

Allen left Mississippi for California as a young woman. She married a salesman, and traveled the country with him. After her husband died of cancer, she moved to Minnesota with her son, a Vietnam War veteran named John. He died three months later from a kidney condition.

Allen felt like she had nothing left. But she made some very close friends who helped her get settled in a job at a gift shop. She wanted to stay on at the job even after she hurt her back at 84, but she jokes that her bosses thought she’d drive her mobility scooter too fast.

Now retired, Allen looks forward to visits each week from the delivery people of Help At Your Door. She’s known for greeting them with a hug.

“John, the first driver, I just got to love that kid. He was like my son bringing me food, and he treated me like that,” Allen said. “They’re very, very nice people.”

That personal connection is central to Help At Your Door’s approach, said executive director Karen Cotch.

More than 80 percent of the group’s clients live alone, according to their data. Many are older women. Staffers may be the only people to visit some of them on a regular basis. In some cases, staffers or volunteers are the ones to discover when they’ve fallen gravely ill or passed away.

“If you talk to any of our clients, they are very isolated,” Cotch said. “They really appreciate someone coming by and giving some support, and doing it not out of charity but just out of, this is what we do —you care about your neighbor.”

Help At Your Door has delivered groceries in the Twin Cities area for going on 35 years. But they also do chores like raking leaves, cleaning gutters or painting walls. They even give people rides to appointments or to run errands.

“What we have done is really look at what can keep somebody independent in their home,” Cotch said. “If somebody can no longer get around as much as before, but they have the need to stay where they are, we try to provide those supports.”

Help At Your Door relies on 20 staff and more than 600 volunteers. A state filing shows they ran the operation on about $1 million last year, much of it raised from private donations.