A half century ago, Meals on Wheels Central Texas consisted of eight neighbors cooking in local church kitchens to provide hot, nutritious meals to 12 neighbors in need. Today, the organization has several thousand volunteers providing services to around 5,000 seniors across the region, aiming to help them live in their homes independently with dignity.

Henry Van de Putte became the CEO of Meals on Wheels Central Texas in February, but his love for nonprofits was sparked in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Seeing firsthand how nonprofits could reach people in a way the government could not, he was motivated to dedicate his life to helping others. Now, he credits his passion for the mission of MOWCTX to his adoration for his grandparents and great-grandparents.

“Meals on Wheels Central Texas is such a unique opportunity, not just because of the service we do, but the entrepreneurial spirit that this organization brings to this community,” Van de Putte said. “Where the Austin community is right now with the growth and evolution, there really is the threat of losing our living history within our Central Texas family.”

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, MOWCTX’s benchmark program of daily hot meal delivery had halted. It resumed in April of this year, and Van de Putte said in just the first week of resumption, volunteers called 911 three times because a senior had fallen. To him, it is all about the volunteer-client interactions.

“We sustain through our programs, living history in the community. It’s validated, it’s there, it’s important, it’s worthwhile,” Van de Putte said. “I think with our myriad programs, we offer a soup to nuts organization that covers so many needs for the seniors in Central Texas.”

In addition to prepared meal delivery, the organization offers over 13 programs, including in-home care, pet care called PALS, home repair, and respite care for adults and seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s. To date, the program has provided over 240,000 hours of in-home care, served 900 clients’ pets each year, and has used a total of over $3.6 million for home repairs.

Before the pandemic, about 93% of meals delivered to seniors were done by volunteers. Van de Putte said on any given week, a senior could receive a meal from five different individuals, providing varying social interactions and glimmers of hope. Now, about 40-60% of meals are delivered by volunteers and MOWCTX staff fill in the void. Van de Putte hopes to bring the percentage of volunteerism back up to pre-pandemic normalcy.

“We cannot just hire our way to success or raise revenue that way. We’ve got to have the volunteer spirit,” Van de Putte said. “I think that’s what’s important now. If we don’t give folks a taste of volunteerism it’s a part of our community that can be lost.”

Looking ahead to the future, Van de Putte hopes the next 50 years are filled with volunteers helping in all aspects of the program’s mission. He also wants to utilize technology to enhance systems.

“It’s understanding where technology is going to take us and fully utilizing it while not losing the human interaction,” Van de Putte said. “That’s where we’re going to be in 50 years, harnessing technology to be as efficient as we can without losing the human connection.”

Van de Putte said while meals can sometimes be transactional, the system in place with MOWCTX makes them transformational. Each Wednesday, Van de Putte takes a route through the community to deliver meals and make connections with clients, knowing human relationships are the most valuable gift.

“All of us have an experience of our elders in our own family, and we know that it takes a village. What happens to the seniors without the village? That’s what keeps me going,” Van de Putte said.

MOWCTX has open meal delivery routes in all areas of the metro. Head to www.mealsonwheelscentraltexas.org to start an application and find local volunteer opportunities.

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