Editor’s Note: As we highlight our Senior Citizen Special Edition we are reminded of the many retired senior volunteers that help many nonprofits function effectively daily. Below are a few examples of a few of those awesome seniors.
Lifelong Puebloan Helen Benavidez can say with near certainty that when she unlocks the doors to Pueblo’s Community Soup Kitchen each weekday morning, a small crowd will already be waiting. It’ll be a mixture of homeless, some day laborers, a few elderly men and women and, nowadays, a growing number of families just down on their luck.
Benavidez runs the place. She also has a couple of paid staff, Bryan, the cook, and Juan, the Kitchen’s dishwasher. And then there are the volunteers she counts on to keep the operation humming in order to serve the several hundred homeless and hungry who drop in each week. “On a good day,” she said, “I’ve got six (volunteers).”
She speaks of her volunteer staff almost like family. Jesse Sena’s first. “He’s been doing this about fourteen years,” she said. The guy who picks up the donuts and helps out is Jim Koncialdi, a local businessman who also happens to be the President of the Kitchen’s Board of Directors. Then there’s Greg Medina, a six-day-a-week fixture for the last six years; Roland Nazario’s retired military; Martha McKeehan, is a retired schoolteacher and former missionary. McKeehan, said Benavidez, is the Kitchen’s sandwich queen, making “hundreds and hundreds of sandwiches for us.” It goes on.
“Floyd Park is in his eighties and services the swamp coolers,” Benavidez says. “I refuse to let him get on the roof by himself.” Raymundo Manquera, despite a disability that requires a wheelchair, “brings food twice a month.” Manquera only delivers, she said. A disability makes it difficult for him to get in and out of his truck without great effort. He also “can’t afford the $10,000 for a lift,” she confides. Rounding out her volunteers is Louis Losasso who “organizes the assembly line for the sack lunches.”
Keeping the Kitchen operational requires volunteers to wear a variety of hats, she said. “One day you might be peeling potatoes or hardboiled eggs or doing any job that needs to be done,” Benavidez said. And then, there’s always a bathroom to clean. Volunteers do that, too.
Besides volunteers, Benavidez said she has come to count on both King Soopers and Safeway along with others for food donations. The fact that she and a number of her staff are bilingual has also come in handy in securing donations. “It (Spanish) helps tremendously. We had a gentleman whose boss told him to dump two pallets of chicken that were ready to thaw out. If I hadn’t been bilingual, we would not have gotten that chicken that we shared with the rest of the community.”
The Kitchen went through more than a few darks days when COVID was gaining momentum. “At the start,” said Benavidez, “we lost a huge amount of core volunteers,” who couldn’t go out. The problem was compounded because younger people didn’t step in to fill the void. That’s why, she said, she feels lucky every time she unlocks the doors. “We are so very blessed. I just can’t even begin to tell you.”
Another essential agency whose lifeblood is also volunteers is the city’s Meals on Wheels program, a program that went through a very rough 2020 because of COVID, said Jane Schifferdecker. Schifferdecker oversees the program’s drivers.
The virus forced a number of drivers to drop out and, as a result, added to the workload of those who remained. “We serve meals every day,” she said. Her drivers, almost exclusively retired workers, include a few who’ve been retired for years. “One driver drove until six months before he passed,” she said. “He was 93 when he finally had to quit.”
Other drivers deliver hot meals to seniors each weekday all across the city, many of whom, though not all, live in a handful of Pueblo’s senior centers. Saturday and Sunday deliveries are reserved for a smaller and more dependent number of seniors. “If they didn’t have a meal, they would not eat,” she said. One of the recipients, she said, is a 104 year-old woman whose eighty-something son lives with her. “They’re totally dependent on us.”
While the volunteers get no paycheck, their work is invaluable. “Every year there’s a non-profit that figures out what a volunteer is worth in hourly wages. It’s $26.75 an hour.” If the city’s Senior Resource Development Agency had to pay for the volunteers, she said, “We wouldn’t be able to continue. They would cost us a half a million dollars every year.”
Besides the Meals on Wheels responsibilities, Schifferdecker also wears another hat for SRDA. She is also a certified Master Trainer Matter of Balance instructor. She teaches seniors on how to avoid dangerous falls. Falls seriously injure or cause death each year among this population.
Both Benavidez and Schifferdecker say they can always use more volunteers. Schifferdecker employs the direct pitch/mince-no-words technique to people she runs into, she said. “I hit people up all the time at the grocery store.” When they tell her they’re retired and complain that they don’t have anything to do, “I tell ‘em, ‘when you need something to entertain yourself, give me a call.”