CLEARWATER — It's not so easy getting around, Harry Schill says, after having a heart attack a year ago.
Standing and walking are difficult. Nonetheless, the 79-year-old Clearwater man wears a bright smile as he slowly shuffles to his door several times a week to greet Meals on Wheels volunteers with a thank you and a blessing.
The program delivers meals to needy, disabled and homebound seniors.
"I thank God for 'em (the volunteers) and I pray for them every day," Schill said. "It's very important. I don't know what I'd do without this."
Unfortunately, he and other recipients could find out, if the economic downturn combined with rising gas prices continue to deter volunteers who must use their own fuel, vehicles and time to deliver about 1,000 meals across Pinellas County each day.
Organizers with Neighborly Care Network, which administers the federally funded food program in Pinellas County, estimate the nonprofit has seen a 50 percent drop in volunteers since Sept. 11, 2001.
That's partly because it is primarily retirees who are attracted to the volunteer job, in which they spend about 90 minutes midday picking up meals from one of nine Neighborly locations, then delivering them to 10 to 12 homes in their neighborhood.
Death, age-related illness, and the departures of part-time residents have always bitten a chunk out of the agency's volunteer ranks, officials say. But with the recession, participation has dwindled more rapidly as folks are forced by economic necessity to return to the workforce.
And as volunteers age, they sometimes end up as Meals on Wheels clients themselves.
The price of gas is just the latest hurdle.
"Gas prices are a big one for us because ... many of our volunteers are seniors on fixed incomes. ... When you're talking about gas prices around $4 a gallon, it's tough," Neighborly marketing director Sandi Narron said. "A lot of volunteers will pick up an extra route for us, but that hurts them because they pay for twice as much gas."
Neighborly Care Network and a dozen Pinellas County elected officials participated in the eighth annual Mayors for Meals campaign Wednesday to bring awareness to a national Meals on Wheels campaign to recruit volunteers and stamp out senior hunger by 2020.
From the North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Center in Clearwater, Pinellas County Commissioner Nancy Bostock and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos accompanied volunteers on routes that fed 135 area seniors.
"Gas prices are high, but that makes it all the more important because everyone is being hit and the people in need are being hit even harder," Bostock said. "Many hands make light work."
Calling the program "important and necessary," Cretekos said he encourages anyone with any time at all on their hands "to help ensure that people get at least one good meal a day."
Neighborly Care Network, which started the nation's first federally funded Meals on Wheels program in 1968, has about 800 volunteers. But Narron said they're "desperate" for more to help accommodate the 500 potential clients who remain on the group's waiting list.
The typical client, she said, is an 80-year-old woman who can't stand long enough to cook for herself and can't get to the grocery store because she's homebound. Meals cost $5.25 each and are funded through federal grants, Medicaid or out of pocket.
Clearwater couple Barbara and Paul Songer, both 63, volunteer two days a week. They've developed relationships with many of the clients they encountered over the last nine years.
"We know that a lot of times, this is the only contact people have throughout the day. And that way, they also have a little check on them, too," Barbara said.
Ruth Henderson is a retired teacher from Seminole who delivers meals every few weeks as part of a rotation among her fellow Clearwater Woman's Club members. The route puts about 25 miles round trip on her car, but she said that's nothing compared to the extra fuel it adds to others' lives.
"Most of them are really nice and appreciative and thank you for coming," Henderson said.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.