CLERMONT — When Irene Johnston turned 100 last month, she knew Meals on Wheels would remain a regular part of her life, as it has for years.
But Johnston, a Clermont resident with a sharp memory who appears decades younger, isn't the one on the receiving end. Instead, she's the one delivering hot meals, generally a meat-and-potatoes style meal with greens and a dessert, to seniors 40 years her junior who have trouble leaving home.
"I love it," Johnston said about bonding with the people she encounters who don't realize how old she is. "There's one little lady. She got a card from one of her children. She got a picture, and she showed it to me and she said, 'Honey, when you get as old as I am, you'll have pictures like that to look at.' "
Like Johnston, many Meals on Wheels deliverers are as old as or older than the people with limited mobility they serve in a program that feeds about 1 million people nationwide. Young people also volunteer on occasion.
Still, retirees account for the majority of volunteers because of the commitment and timing involved in serving meals. Most programs, which receive funding from donations and government grants, hand out meals Monday through Friday mornings. That makes it difficult for people who work or go to school to volunteer. For example, a Meals on Wheels program organized for Orange County residents by the organization Seniors First depends on 350 people, most in their mid 60s, to provide 1,000 meals a day.
The same can be said for other Meals on Wheels programs across Central Florida, where hundreds of people are on waiting lists for meals.
"The need has just grown exponentially," said Sherry Fincher, executive director for Meals on Wheels, Etc., which serves Seminole County. "It's just awful."
The age range for volunteers in the Seminole program, based in Sanford, is evolving as the group seeks to work with corporations to engage employees of all ages to participate.
It's a special treat for seniors who receive meals to be greeted by a young person, said Wilda Belisle, who directs the Meals on Wheels program run by the Osceola County Council on Aging.