Caroline Clark's office is modest, tucked into the corner of a meeting room in a church in Vernon. She arrives daily at 10 a.m., parks her walker in front of her small desk and sits down, rarely getting up for the next four hours. From that humble workspace, every weekday for the past quarter-century, Clark has been saving people's lives.
"I love my job. I know what I do is good. I take care of my clients," said Clark, 73, who lives in Tolland.
Clark is the Vernon coordinator of Meals on Wheels, Community Renewal Team's program to provide food to homebound senior citizens.
CRT spokesman Jason Black said that, in her 25 years with the agency Clark has organized delivery of more than a half-million meals to shut-ins in Vernon, Manchester and Ellington. "She does it all with grace and a smile. She's an amazing person who does this work because she loves it," Black said.
One of Clark's volunteers, Deb Rodriguez of Vernon, praised her compassion. "She has a good soul, good heart," Rodriguez said. "It's in how she runs the place. It's a community here."
Clark's team of volunteers deliver both food and human contact. "We don't just leave the meal and assume the person is OK. We have to see the person," Clark said. "We spend time with the person, talking to them, looking at pictures of their grandchildren, meeting their cats. If they don't answer the door, we track them down to make sure they are fine."
Sometimes interactions are tense or heartbreaking. "Yesterday, a client wasn't home. She doesn't drive and rarely leaves her bedroom," Clark said. After hours of searching, the police were called and the woman was located. Clark also recalls times when volunteers have found clients who have died or fallen down.
Other interactions are more lighthearted. "I had a lady who lived in Rockville. ... She stayed in her bed. I brought her meal. She said 'Would you get out the silverware and put the cold meal in the fridge? Will you go get my teeth in the living room?'" Clark said. "Then I did that and came back and she said, 'Who are you?'"
Clark was born in Newton, N.J. She was an only child, born when her father was 51 and her mother was 44. Her uncles and aunts had no children. As a small child, she often spent all day with her grandparents at their restaurant, playing while they worked. "I grew up only with older people. When I wasn't at school or having fun with my peers, it was older people in my life, all the time," she said.
She went to Green Mountain College in Vermont and then Glassboro State College in New Jersey, getting a degree in education. She worked for her local Girl Scout council in New Jersey for 10 years, training the leaders.
Then her husband was transferred by Union Carbide to Connecticut. Clark worked at a Methodist church in Bolton, then for Willington schools, then at Vincent's Pharmacy in Rockville before coming to Meals on Wheels.
"I look at the clients as if they were my parents. I treat them the way I would want people to treat my parents," she said. "They are wonderful people. They think of you as family when you walk in the door."
Her cadre of 30 volunteers who deliver the meals are almost all retirees. "They are in the same boat. They know how older people are treated, that sometimes the care they get isn't so great," she said. "Young people don't get it. I don't mean to say they are not kind and caring, but I don't think they get it and they won't get it until they are that age."
Edward Franklin of Vernon, who volunteers for Clark, gets it. "When I'm delivering food, I don't rush in and out. I like to sit for 15 or 20 minutes, talking, reminiscing," the retired trucker said. "When I lose a client, I am deeply hurt."
Thousands of meals are made daily at CRT's Hartford headquarters, tailored to fit each client's needs: cardiac-care, low-potassium, lactose-free, vegetarian, kosher. All meals are low-sodium and have no concentrated sweets. Some meals are chopped up or, for clients who can't chew, ground up.
Meals are trucked out to regional centers, where volunteers divide them up and head out on their routes. Monday to Wednesday, each client is offered a hot meal to eat when it is delivered at mid-day and a cold meal for that evening. On Thursday and Friday, each client is offered four meals, to get them through the weekend.
In Vernon, Clark assigns volunteers to routes, making sure each meal goes to its intended recipient. If wrong meals are delivered, she goes out to correct them, sometimes with help from her retired husband. She mans phones to make sure all meals are delivered and all clients are healthy. If they aren't, she calls clients' families and often visits clients' homes.
Nonperishable "storm meals" are given out periodically, to save for days when roads are too icy for deliveries. "In 2011, after the bad storm, we were shut down for a week. It was awful," she said. "But very few of our clients don't have family members they can call. The alone ones we kept an eye on. They have my number. I have their numbers."
Clients are asked for a $2.50-per-meal free-will donation. Many can't pay but they get the meals anyway.
Patricia Hetu, 74, of Manchester, has been a client of Clark's for a year and a half. Hetu uses a wheelchair due to post-polio syndrome. Before Meals on Wheels, she had problems preparing food for herself. "I do cook ... but sometimes the pain factor got pretty high," Hetu said. "I didn't bother doing anything. Maybe I'd eat a carton of cottage cheese."
Hetu gets Meals on Wheels three days a week and said she may need more frequent meals as her mobility decreases. "I can't say enough good things about the super people at Meals on Wheels," she said. "They are so dedicated. They do a tremendous job."
Clark is the most dedicated of them all. She efficiently marshals her forces and, in the quiet moments, knits scarves for members of the military and for the annual bazaar at Trinity Lutheran Church, which provides her office space rent-free. "It helps a little bit to defray the costs, to thank them for all they do for us," she said.
CRT runs more than two dozen Meals on Wheels branches, serving residents of Hartford, Middlesex and Tolland counties. CRT also operates emergency shelters; locates affordable housing; helps families pay heating bills; provides veterans' support services; runs Head Start, day care and summer food programs; administers mental-health and substance-abuse programs; runs a Homeless Outreach program; offers employment training; supports ex-offenders re-entering the community; offers money-management classes; and other services.
For details about Meals on Wheels and to donate to CRT, visit www.crtct.org.