Like Visiting Old Friends: Thetford Meals On Wheels Volunteers Honored
Joe and Dot Tofel at a reception in their honor at the Thetfored Community Center. 11-9-2013 Medora Hebert
Dot Tofel, right, talks with Lucy Young, of Thetford, who was on Tofel’s Meals On Wheels route. Medora Hebert photograph
Joe Tofel, left, spends time at Saturday’s event with William Sanborne, of Thetford, one of Tofel’s longtime Meals On Wheels recipients. Medora Hebert photograph
Thetford Center — Sitting in the Thetford Community Center building Saturday afternoon, Dorothy Tofel was tapped on the shoulder by a woman wearing a purple sweater, moving toward Tofel with the help of a walker.
The woman, Lillian DeVaux, 92, greeted Tofel as “Dot,” the name Tofel is known by around town. And as Tofel saw her friend, she responded with excitement, hugging DeVaux and thanking for coming out.
“I had to come to this, of course,” DeVaux said. “We’ve known each other for a long time.”
“I won’t be seeing you for the last time,” Tofel responded. “I’m going to stop in and see you, and this time I won’t have to run.”
Tofel, 81, was referring to her time as a volunteer driver for Meals On Wheels, the national program run locally out of Hartford’s Bugbee Senior Center, in which unpaid volunteers deliver hot meals to senior citizens. Tofel has been delivering meals in Thetford for almost 26 years, and her husband, Joe, 82, joined her route about a decade ago.
The Tofels delivered their last round of meals on Halloween, and the group of about 35 people at the Community Center on Saturday — including a half-dozen Meals On Wheels recipients and several volunteer drivers and family members — had gathered to celebrate the quarter-century of service and the friendships that grew out of it.
“Awful good people,” said Bill Sanborn Sr., 83, who met the Tofels when they began delivering meals to him years ago. “I think they’re great. (Twenty-five years of volunteering), that’s a long time.”
People in attendance said that, despite the cast of familiar faces, it was rare to see everybody together. For many Meals On Wheels recipients, coordinating a trip outside the home can be difficult, and Thetford volunteers usually don’t see each other because, while they drive the same route, they do so on different days of the week.
Indeed, spending a Saturday afternoon together, especially in honor of Joe and Dot, was joyous.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Dorothy Tofel said in an interview. “I really am — just the fact that everybody got here, because it’s not easy. ... This is really a wonderful group of people.”
The best part of volunteering for the organization, Joe Tofel said, was “obviously the people we delivered to.”
“It was great fun,” he said. “We made some very good friends.”
Dorothy Tofel began volunteering for the organization in the 1980s, shortly after she and her husband moved to Academy Road in Thetford. They had raised family in Chappaqua, N.Y., and moved to Thetford upon Joe Tofel’s retirement from a career in sales brokerage representing food industry manufacturers like Smucker’s. In addition to other community engagements undertaken by the couple, Joe Tofel would eventually serve as town moderator for 11 years, until stepping down four years ago.
Dorothy Tofel was recruited to Meals On Wheels, she said, by Thetford’s Bertha Brown, and was also inspired by Brown’s husband, Elmer, who volunteered for the fire department for 25 years.
“I said, wow, when these people commit, they really commit … and I said to myself, ‘I wonder if I could do something for 25 years?’ ” she said, laughing. “Volunteers make this community.”
For a time, meals were made for pickup at Thetford Elementary School. But for most of her service, Tofel would make the 15-mile trip every Thursday to the Bugbee Senior Center, pick up the meals that were cooked there, and bring them back to Thetford in an insulated carrier to distribute them to seniors at their homes.
Most of the time, she — and eventually her husband, as well — would deliver to at least one person in each of Thetford’s six villages. Using an estimate of 45 miles of driving a week — possibly a low-ball figure — their grandson, Dave Tofel, 34, of Norwich, calculated that the Tofels drove 60,840 miles for Meals On Wheels, more than twice the circumference of the Earth. (Meals On Wheels drivers are not reimbursed for their mileage.)
While it’s time to move on — Dorothy Tofel said she’s slowing down and needs more time to take care of the house — the Tofels said they’ve benefitted greatly from the program.
“I met the most unique people,” Dorothy Tofel said. “They were the old-time Vermonters. They were unusual in that they had circumstances of the Great Depression and World War II, they were survivors, and they always had a smile on their face. … I just fell in love with them, I really did.
“That’s what I got out of doing this,” she added. “I feel I got as much as I gave, just because of the people who were involved.”
The roster of seniors who receive Meals On Wheels in Thetford usually hovers around eight, but has reached as high as 13. Joe Tofel estimated that throughout the nearly 26 years, he and Dorothy probably brought meals to between 70 and 100 different people — and many became dear friends.
“You talk about something one week,” he said, “and you pick it up the next week.”
Saturday’s gathering was organized by Thetford residents Judy Ozahowski and Barb Sorenson, Meals On Wheels volunteers who each drive the same route as the Tofels on different days. Save for brief, informal speeches by Ozahowski and the Tofels, the two-hour event was made up entirely of folks mingling and reminiscing, enjoying coffee and homemade cookies.
Several people suggested the Tofels’ service is an example of the Meals On Wheels program at its best, and lamented that the Bugbee Senior Center had taken two big financial hits this year: Granite United Way cut the Bugbee Senior Center’s funding from $10,000 in 2012 to nothing for the current fiscal year, and a $17,000 federal grant also went unrenewed, likely because of the sequester.
“This is about as direct as you can benefit people,” said the Tofels’ son, Steve, of Thetford. “I was really surprised (Granite United Way) did that.”
But he and others were quick to turn the focus back to his parents.
“It’s just very typical of them,” he said of the Tofels’ volunteer work. “It’s one of those things that, it’s not money, it’s giving your time and meeting people. … It’s a very important thing that goes beyond meals.”
Neighbor Joe Cook, 83, knew the couple long before they began delivering meals to him. Nevertheless, he said, he’s appreciated all that they’ve done for Thetford and bringing the community together.
“I just have great respect for Joe and Dot, and I thought I could donate my time and come to the shindig,” he said, and smiled.
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.