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New law could be bad news for Meals on Wheels

My favorite person when I volunteered for Meals on Wheels had to be the trampoline lady.

Near 90, unfailingly sunny, she would accept the warm meal and then tell me how she spent the morning on her trampoline. This seemed unlikely given her years and her tiny apartment with no actual trampoline in it, but she described it down to the somersaults.

Another woman would meet me at the door at noon in her bathrobe, which she said she pretty much lived in since her husband died. She seemed glad for the talk.

And down the street was a man I never did meet, though the hospice people told me he loved when I brought chicken.

Meals on Wheels is a great program. Volunteers in Hillsborough and Pinellas deliver thousands of hot meals to the elderly and home-bound daily. Maybe you knew (I didn't), but many pay full price (about five bucks a meal), others pay what they can and some nothing at all. Pinellas has 300 people on a waiting list.

Like other good programs, Meals on Wheels is trying to survive this economy.

Now comes a well-meaning but maybe-missed-the-mark new law that could make things even tougher. Passed in the last legislative session, it requires volunteers and employees to be fingerprinted and checked through the FBI. Think about it: If a program must fingerprint 500 volunteers at an estimated $50 per person, that's $25,000. Or 5,000 meals.

Other potential fallout: It's one thing for a well-meaning, service-oriented type to have his driving and criminal record checked, but something else to mandate he go to the local sheriff's office and submit his prints. For some, it may be a deal breaker.

Stephen King, executive director of Tampa's program (yes, he's heard the horror-story jokes), gets the law's intent and doesn't even disagree with it. But he expects to lose volunteers. "We're going to be asking people who have served in some cases 30 years" to be fingerprinted, he says.

Maybe the Big Brother aspect will bother some. Or maybe getting fingerprinted isn't what they had in mind when they wanted to give back.

"We don't want to take a big hit when we do this and have a lot of volunteers leave," says Sandi Narron, public relations manager for the program serving Pinellas.

Meanwhile, no one can recall a criminal incident involving a volunteer and a client.

Everyone's still untangling details of the law and how fast they have to move, but here's another kink: consider a creative program called Adopt-A-Route, where a Rotary Club or church group takes responsibility for a specific route, rotating its members as volunteers. Two of Hillsborough's Adopt-A-Routes are run by schools and include parents delivering. "There's no way we can ask parents who maybe serve for us twice a year to go down and be fingerprinted," King says.

The powers-that-be in Tallahassee should take up the law again next year. It includes some exceptions to the screening rules, like for doctors and nurses. Couldn't volunteers who serve only a few hours a year be added to that?

It goes without saying no one wants to make it easier to prey on our elderly neighbors. But to thwart a program with a record of decades of doing good — now that sounds like a crime.

New law could be bad news for Meals on Wheels 09/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 8:48pm]

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