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Meals on Wheels: MacKenzie Scott Donation Investment For Infrastructure, Capacity, And Robotic Dogs

man unloads boxes from a Meals on Wheels van
Brian Vuyancih
Meals on Wheels
The goals of Meals on Wheels is to "just try to make sure they're (seniors) able to live safely and with dignity in the comfort of their homes for as long as they'd like to," CEO Jennifer Steel said.

Before the pandemic, one in four seniors were experiencing isolation and loneliness that directly affected their health and quality of life. It increases their risk of heart disease and stroke, causing premature death at rates comparable to those who die from smoking and obesity. COVID-19 restrictions exasperated the problem. A $4 million dollar investment from businesswoman MacKenzie Scott to Meals on Wheels of Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentuckyis the boost the organization says it needed to ramp up efforts to serve senior citizens and invest in the future of the organization.

CEO Jennifer Steele says the organization decided to focus on two main categories: hunger and malnourishment, and social isolation and loneliness. That means investing in infrastructure, expanding capacity to serve people, and pop-up projects to improve the quality of life for seniors -- like robotic cats and dogs for companionship.

"One of the things we just launched this week is an expansion of our pet program, where we're providing these really cool, interactive, robotic pets to seniors who can't have a live animal in the home," Steele says. "There's actually been some really early evidence that that can be just as effective as a live pet for seniors ... who live in a nursing home and aren't allowed to have a pet."

CEO Jennifer Steele poses with one of the new robotic cats being offered to seniors as part of a $4 million investment from businesswoman MacKenzie Scott.

The nonprofit is also expanding pet services and committed to environmental health initiatives, like planning for electric fleet delivery vehicles in the next several years and ensuring people can afford pet vaccinations.

Steele says the money for the programs was donated "out of the blue" at the end of last year — she didn't even know they were being considered for the gift. Meals on Wheels was selected as part of Scott's Giving Pledge. She's committed to giving away the majority of her wealth in her lifetime. NPR reports her net worth is an estimated nearly $60 billion.

The money helped the organization quickly clear its waiting list to make sure seniors were being fed during the pandemic.

"We made sure that our case managers had the funding that they needed to make sure that no seniors' electric was getting turned off, that we could work with other agencies to make sure that all those basic needs were taken care of. And then we started looking to what are those things that are going to move the needle," Steele said.

Though Meals on Wheels is best known for providing meals directly to homes for seniors, it also provides a range of other services, including financial case management, transportation, and social outings.

The goal is to "just try to make sure they're able to live safely and with dignity in the comfort of their homes for as long as they'd like to," Steel said.

Meals on Wheels of Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky helps about 10,000 people annually. The need for investment into services for the elderly is expected to spike in the coming decades.

Steele says there are73 million seniors in the country and it's expected there will be 93 million in 20 years.

"The financial security of seniors is definitely not going to be getting better during that time," she said.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.