CLEARWATER — When you volunteer for Meals on Wheels, not only do you provide hot and healthy meals to your homebound neighbors, you give something that far exceeds a full and happy belly — a human connection.

And it is that connection that makes program volunteers so vital to the community, said Wonetha Hall, marketing manager at Neighborly Care Network, the organization that provides a Meals on Wheels service in Pinellas County.

“Watching out for our client, making sure they are healthy and in safe conditions, that’s one of the most important things our volunteers do,” Hall said.

Hall said core volunteers for the program are retirees who have the time to deliver almost 2,000 lunch-time meals Monday through Friday, all year-round.

But as temperatures have risen, local snowbirds have flown back North, and the cache of volunteers has become severely depleted.

According to Hall, the program, which normally has during the cooler months 500 to 600 volunteers, has lost more than 25 percent of its drivers.

Meals on Wheels executive director David Lomaka said the lack of volunteers has already impacted services.

“It is becoming more difficult to cover our daily Meals on Wheels routes in Pinellas County,” he said. “Many of our current volunteers are doubling their routes to make sure all of our seniors are covered.”

According to Hall, it’s an untenable situation, at best.

“It’s hard for the volunteers we do have to keep up in the heat, even though they are trying their best,” Hall said. “We know we can’t sustain that for much longer.”

According to Hall, volunteers are desperately needed in the Largo area, with seven to 10 routes needing coverage. Hall said volunteers deliver to no more than 15 homes per route and it takes approximately two hours.

There are eight Meals on Wheels locations throughout the county, and volunteers can sign up for a little as one delivery per week.

“Every little bit helps,” Hall said. “The more volunteers we have, the less time it will take to service our clients.”

With the objective to help keep seniors in their homes for as long as possible, Hall said the Meals on Wheels program provides an invaluable service to the community.

“We know the community supports us, and we are grateful for that,” she said. “This need is an emergency stopgap, just to get us through the summer.”

If you are interested in volunteering, call 727-573-9444.

About Neighborly services

Neighborly is a private, nonprofit organization providing elder care in Pinellas County for more than 50 years. Among those services are:

• Neighborly Adult Day Centers provides quality day services for seniors with physical or memory-related disabilities. Centers offer seniors a warm and friendly atmosphere managed by a licensed healthcare staff, and respite for caregivers who are caring for a loved one at home.

• No-cost and low-cost lunch home meal delivery is available for adults in Pinellas County in need of a fresh hot and nutritious meal at home during the week.

• Neighborly Senior Cafés provide a social atmosphere, while also providing lunch. There are several locations throughout Pinellas County with no-cost transportation available. Senior Cafés are open Monday through Friday. Activities start by 11 a.m. Lunch is served at noon.

• Neighborly Transportation offers no cost transportation to medical appointments, group shopping or dining, Adult Day Centers, or Senior Cafes. Transportation is available for adults 60 and older, and individuals 55 and older who are disabled.