The Heart-to-Heart Gala that takes place tonight for Fairbanks Senior Center, at the Wedgewood Resort, will benefit a segment of the population that most people never think about — our aging senior citizens.

Specifically, funds will help Meals on Wheels, a longtime program that delivers meals every day to seniors. Nearly 300 of those seniors are homebound and this program allows them to remain living independently, in their own homes. Sometimes the daily visit has even saved lives.

“We found one senior who went out to the mailbox, came back in and fell,” said executive director Darlene Supplee. “He laid there all night long, behind his door. When the Meals on Wheels driver came the next day, he found him.”

The drivers deliver nutritious and dietician-approved meals, and also provide a safety check and sometimes much-needed human contact.

“Seventy-four percent of the local Meals on Wheels recipients are at an income level of $15,000 or less,” Supplee said.

The numbers of those in need of this service will only rise. Alaska has the fastest growing aging population — more than any other state — at 63%, she said. That increase will level off in 2025, but then the 80 years old and older segment will boom with an estimated 5,400 in this group locally by 2030.

Fairbanks Senior Center partners with the Fairbanks Food Bank.

“In that partnership, we are able to send out extra fruit throughout the weeks, with the extra produce we receive,” she said. “And cookies as an extra little treat.”

Community volunteers are critical for this program to work as well as it does.

Senior citizen Kaethe Foertsch, for example, spends about four hours a day at the center, helping with Meals on Wheels by packaging sandwiches or cookies. The widow says it gets her out of the house and allows her to do good work at the same time.

Meals on Wheels is funded through the Older Americans Act, but volunteers are key to making it successful.

“They are an essential point in being able to service so many meals with good quality food,” Supplee said. If the center had to pay for those volunteers, service could drop drastically.

Volunteer delivery drivers, for example, are critical to the program.

“In the first part of the year, we had almost 1,300 hours of volunteering,” Supplee said. “If we priced that out, it’s almost $18,000. We do six routes a day. Five of those are performed with volunteers.”

In the kitchen this week, Ashley Gourley happily prepared to serve lunches to hungry seniors.

“This is the most committed group I’ve ever worked with,” she said, of her 2 1/2 years working with colleagues at the senior center. “It’s a special place to work.”

Sick days are rarely taken, she said, adding, “We all make an extra effort to keep ourselves healthy.”

In order for lunch and Meals on Wheels trays to be ready on time, prep begins at about 3 a.m. every day. From that tiny kitchen, 64,000 meals were prepared last year.

They are delivered in special heated bags that maintain the temperature at 140 degrees, which gives the clients the longest shelf life possible for the meals.

The Heart-to-Heart Gala happens tonight at Wedgewood Resort. Cocktails at 6 p.m. and dinner at 7 p.m. Live entertainment, silent and live auction, photo booth, dancing and DJ. Tickets are $100, available at the Fairbanks Senior Center or online at www.fairbanksseniorcenter.org. More information at 452-1735.

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at kcapps@newsminer.com. Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.

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