By Dashiell Young-Saver, Special to the Acorn, December 22, 2011
Seventeen years ago Harry and Arlene Norkin, at ages 73 and 68, began delivering Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors in the Thousand Oaks area. Now age 90 and 85, the couple continue to venture out every Thursday morning with a car full of food, volunteering their time and energy to provide sustenance for their grateful clients. “We have lived a good life, and a lot of people are not in as good a situation as we are,” said Harry, a Thousand Oaks resident for 46 years and grandfather of five. “If we don’t help them, who will?”
The couple are always the first to arrive at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center at 10:30 in the morning the day of their routes.
They pack the food into their car, get their list of clients and go from home to home delivering the meals and checking in on the recipients.
At the end of their busy route, which can include as many as 14 houses, the Norkins go out to lunch, usually at Baja Fresh, and reflect on their day. For them, the clients make it worth the effort. “We enjoy it. They love us and are always so happy to see us,” Arlene said.
The Meals on Wheels program is run by Senior Concerns, a nonprofit organization in Thousand Oaks that provides various services to seniors throughout the Conejo Valley. It delivers more than 47,000 meals annually to those who are homebound and cannot shop or cook.
“Delivering the meals gives seniors that small measure of independence that can keep them from having to move into nursing homes,” said Scott Porter, Senior Concerns’ food service coordinator, who’s run the program for the past two years.
With donations, payments and the work of about 75 volunteers, Meals on Wheels provides its services on a sliding pay scale and has never turned away anyone for financial reasons, Porter said. Meals on Wheels volunteers not only bring food, they also check on the status of their clients and provide them with company, he added. The bonds between clients and volunteers like the Norkins can be more friendship-based than professional. “( Harry and Arlene) have been doing it for so long that they’ve built relationships with the people. In some cases, the volunteers may be the only people the clients see all day,” Porter said. But with those strong bonds can come pain, Harry said.
The Norkins sometimes find clients’ names in the obituary section of the paper. In the past few weeks alone, three of the seniors they delivered to have died. “We try not to get too attached to the people. It’s hard,” Harry said. In addition to losses, the duo, who have been married for 65 years, must battle the effects of aging. Arlene has osteoarthritis in her knees, and Harry recently had aortic valve replacement surgery. Despite the health complications, they have not stopped delivering meals for longer than two months at a time.
“Life plays funny tricks on people,” Harry said. “I had to take a break because of my operation, but once I got started again, it was fine. We always manage to do it.” A retired engineer who has worked at Port Hueneme and Westinghouse Nuclear in Nevada, Harry also volunteers at the police department and the free clinic and is a member of the Council on Aging and the Goebel Senior Center Commission.
“I worked as an engineer for the Navy until I retired over 20 years ago,” Harry said. “All the volunteer work I do now is more work than that was.” “He loves what he does,” Arlene added. After she retired from her job as a salesperson, Arlene worked at the Senior Concerns thrift store before she began participating in the Meals on Wheels program. Harry acknowledged that in the future they may need Meals on Wheels as recipients. But until then, the Norkins do not plan to stop volunteering. “As long as we can do it, we will do it,” Harry said.