By Clay Wilson
Throughout the year, a body of people fans out across the arteries of Clayton and Henry counties to help ensure that the area's elderly are not forgotten.
But while the senior citizen programs in each county may be the heart of this system, the volunteers are its life's blood.
"They are so very vital to this program ?," said Mindy French, program manager for the Clayton County Aging Program. "If we did not have the volunteers, we could not run this program sufficiently."
On Friday afternoon, the Henry Council on Aging sponsored an appreciation banquet for its volunteers, complete with a prime rib dinner, door prizes and a magic show.
"We thank you for all you do for Henry County," Eddie Fowler,
a member of the Council on Aging and social services coordinator for Henry County Services, told the almost 300 volunteers gathered for the banquet.
In both Clayton and Henry counties, volunteers work "Meals on Wheels" routes taking food to elderly shut-ins, provide companionship to people visiting the county senior centers and even assist elderly people with homemaking tasks.
According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, in 2000 there were around 20,200 people over the age of 60 in Clayton County (just over 8 percent of the population). Census figures showed almost 12,700 over-60 people in Henry County (about 10 percent of the population).
However, according to Fowler, the number of people over 55 (which Fowler said is the starting age for "senior citizens" for the Council on Aging's purposes) has increased by almost 67 percent in Henry County since the census was taken.
Working to meet the needs of this population in Henry County is the Senior Services Department. Now a branch of the county's Human and Community Services Division, the department began in 1989 under the authority of the Parks and Recreation Department.
Senior Services became became a standalone department in 1992, according to Sandy Craig, who has been director of the program since 1989.
The county has two senior centers, one at Heritage Park in McDonough and the other at Hidden Valley Park in the Fairview area. At the centers, Senior Services staff serve 300 meals per day, breakfast and lunch for anyone over 55.
Volunteers deliver 260 hot meals each day to the elderly and shut-ins who can't get to the centers.
Also, 10 nursing assistants (part of the department's 51-member staff) go into people's homes to provide health and domestic assistance.
According to Craig, the department depends on more than 400 volunteers to help it carry out its mission.
In Clayton County, the Aging Program falls under the auspices of the Parks and Recreation Department. According to French, the program became a separate division of Parks and Recreation in 1990.
Clayton has two senior centers, the Shelnut Center in Jonesboro and the Clayton County Senior Center in Riverdale. A third is slated for construction in Jonesboro with funds from the recently passed Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, French said.
By the numbers, the program serves 135 people meals at the senior centers and another 175 to Meals on Wheels clients. About 230 people use the transportation service, 85 use the homemaker services and 20 take advantage of the Adult Day Health Program.
A staff of 21 and about 380 volunteers keep Clayton's elderly assistance system working, said French.
One of the 400 volunteers in Henry County is 85-year-old Lamar Russell. A retired employee of Planters Warehouse, Russell said he's been delivering Meals on Wheels for at least eight years.
"I have the time to do it," he said. "I really do (enjoy it) You really do develop good friendships with the people you deliver to."
Russell's daughter, Beth Steele, helps her dad during the summer when she's not teaching, as do his daughter-in-law, Teri Hightower and her 13-year-old daughter, Ginger.
Teri Hightower said she and Ginger had been volunteering with the program about two years, ever since Russell asked them to help him out. Ginger said she enjoys the service.
"(Recipients) always welcome you in and you set the meals down on the counter and they just want to talk to you," she said. "It's just a lot of fun."