HOPE — Vera Burris tears up when she thinks about the ways a simple noontime meal and friendly conversation can change the lives of elderly residents who normally spend their days alone.
For 17 years, she has either been delivering meals to homebound residents in the Hope area or serving the meals in the senior center at the Hope Community Center.
“I just love people. That’s my life,” she said sitting down with a group for lunch after making sure everyone had their meal, a cold drink and a fruit cup for dessert.
Burris, 73, had planned to retire at the end of June as meal site director but knew Aging and Community Services of South Central Indiana, which coordinates the program, still was trying to fill the opening.
Burris decided she couldn’t leave unless she was sure her friends and neighbors would be taken care of.
She looks at her role as more than just serving up a plate of chicken and noodles or Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.
“My motto is: Encourage don’t discourage,” Burris said. “You should always try to lift people up.”
In the small community of Hope, the Community Center serves as a place for seniors to gather, residents down on their luck to go to the food pantry and young families to take their children to preschool and child care programs. Other offerings provide activities for youths.
Julie Begin, the center’s executive director, said Burris provides a warm environment for seniors, whether they are looking for a hot meal, friend to talk to or a cool place out of the summer’s blistering heat.
“She’s just a very welcoming person,” Begin said. “She’s always there to listen and to help.”
Burris helps coordinate activities in the senior center where regular Donna Zell often plays the piano and seniors gather in the morning for hot coffee and television news.
The seniors also enjoy games of bingo and “Lunch and Learn” programs provided by nearby Miller’s Merry Manor nursing facility.
Burris, who also has worked as a custodian supervisor at Hope Elementary School and on the factory floor at Cummins Inc., likes that she gets to spend most days with her sister, Betty Burton, who helps her serve meals and drinks.
“She’s my right hand,” Burris said. “She’s the person who helps me keep everything going.”
During her time at the center, Burris remembers many times when she made a difference in people’s lives. On one occasion, a man asked her to check on his mother who lived alone, was depressed and had stopped eating.
Through encouragement and her determination to show the woman she cared, Burris made a friend who enjoyed the hot meal program and lunchtime conversations.
“Her son wrote a letter thanking us for giving his mother her life back,” Burris said.
Terry Jackson, quality assurance director for Aging and Community Services, said the lunch site program assists seniors 60 and older by providing a hot, nutritious meal and a place for companionship.
Meals are served for free to those who cannot afford them. Donations are accepted. Cost for people younger than 60 is $4.50 per meal.
“We’ve been doing this since 1976, and some people still don’t know we have these sites,” Jackson said.
For residents who can’t make it to the Community Center, meals can be delivered.
Those near the Hope town center receive a hot meal during the week.
Others might receive a batch of several frozen meals once a week that can be heated in a microwave.
Zell, a widow who was married to a minister, likes playing the piano for visitors at the senior center, sometimes taking requests, from gospel to patriotic songs.
“I come here not so much for the food, but to be with the people,” she said.
Burris’ husband of 57 years, Starlin, is one of the drivers, making sure those who can’t get to the center have a good meal each day.
“For some, this might be the only person they see all day,” Jackson said.
Burris said she is proud the seniors have considered her a friend and like stopping by the center where each day brings anywhere from five to 20 seniors.
Each day’s attendance is a surprise, but since prepared meals are frozen and heated in a microwave, she can handle however many arrive.
Burris proudly hangs a sheet on the senior center’s bulletin board that lists the results of a client survey conducted by Aging and Community Services:
100 percent for cleanliness, comfort and pleasant environment
100 percent for being friendly and helpful
In the most simple terms, Jackson said the meal site and Community Center will not be the same without Burris.
“Vera is a people person. She is going to be missed.”
Hope Community Center’s senior services
WHAT: Senior lunch site
WHERE: Hope Community Center, 543 Washington St., Hope
WHO: Coordinated by Aging and Community Services of South Central Indiana (which also operates 13 other meal sites)
WHEN: Lunch 11 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday; senior center open 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
COST: Free for seniors 60 and older. Donations accepted. Cost for those younger than 60 is $4.50
DELIVERY: Homebound seniors can arrange for delivery of meals
COOLING SITE: Hope-area seniors can escape the summer’s heat at the center and enjoy free coffee, tea and lemonade 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday
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