Thirty years ago, Rita Ungaro-Schiavone was so upset after visiting a hungry elderly woman that she went home and made meals for her. More than ten million dinners later, Rita and her friends are still serving meals to Philadelphia’s shut-in elderly.
Aid for Friends has an annual budget of just under $900,000, yet produces the equivalent of $7.3 million annually in meals and other services for nearly 3,000 of the city’s elderly, taking advantage of the efforts of an army of 13,000 volunteers. The story of how they perform this service is as remarkable as the history of the organization. But as Rita’s son Steven M. Schiavone says, it always comes back to “people helping other people, their neighbors.”
“We’re the infrastructure that enables people to help other people,” says the younger Schiavone, the organization’s director of finance and administration.
This infrastructure includes 350 freezers stored throughout the five-county Philadelphia region, a referral operation, and numerous services for the clients they seek to help. But for Aid for Friends, these “clients” are not numbers; they are elderly men and women with “real needs and fears. A lot of these people don’t have anyone.”
“We don’t just drop off meals,” says Schiavone. “The volunteer visitors spend at least an hour with their friends.” During that time the visitor not only is communicating care for that person, he adds, but is also assessing what other needs the client might have. The visitor then reports those needs back to the organization.
Those needs, which Aid for Friends often tries to meet, include walkers, canes, bathroom fixtures, smoke alarms, and even counseling services.
Schiavone says referrals come to the organization through a variety of means: hospitals, home health care groups, churches, and concerned neighbors. In each case, Aid for Friends sends a representative to ensure each client truly needs the services and then assigns a volunteer who commits to a weekly visit. The visit includes dropping off seven frozen dinners and, in many cases, a breakfast bag.
“We have a good division of labor,” Schiavone notes.
School children prepare the breakfast bags, while thousands of individuals volunteer to cook. Often, they are connected to churches, synagogues, and civic groups. According to Aid to Friends, 131 Protestant churches, 127 Catholic churches, 6 synagogues, and 413 civic groups and schools take part in the cooking.
As meals are prepared, usually in batches of five to seven, they are taken to one of the 350 freezers the organization maintains throughout the five-county Philadelphia region. Meanwhile, visitors stop at the freezer closest to them to get a week’s worth of meals, which they drop off with the elderly. The visitors themselves tend to be senior citizens, Schiavone says.
For health reasons, some clients are on low-sodium diets. For those individuals, a special set of volunteers make the meals using food purchased by Aid for Friends.
The organization does not send cooks and visitors into the field empty-handed. Instead, those helping with the cooking receive printed materials and specifications for proper preparation and storage. Meanwhile, the visitors are trained in how to work effectively with their clients. “So many of these people are all alone, and they really just need to have a friend.” It is a problem, Schiavone notes, that is all too common throughout the nation.
Schiavone says there is very little about Aid for Friends that could not be replicated. Much like cooking a good meal, there is simply a need for the right ingredients, including a desire to assist those who are alone and in need, a network of committed volunteers, and someone to screen potential clients.
In the coming year, the organization plans to build a commercial kitchen in its facility that will provide a gathering place for groups of volunteers preparing the meals. Further, an in-house kitchen will address some of the difficulties the organization has encountered in the past.
“In the summertime, people are away on vacation and the meal preparation drops off,” Schiavone notes. “The kitchen will help supplement that.” Additionally, meals cooked in-house would be used to supplement the food in storage, ensuring a wider variety of choices.
While Aid for Friends has assisted approximately 10,000 of Philadelphia’s elderly during the last three decades, and is serving close to a half-million meals a year now, Schiavone says there is never time to rest on past accomplishments. “As long as there are people who need help, we’ll strive to offer it.”
—Michael Quinn Sullivan