Into the Grace Lutheran Church basement walked two Penn State students.
They brought a box of sustenance to the State College Meals on Wheels headquarters. But the Gamma Sigma Sigma sorority sisters didn’t carry canned goods or fresh produce.
Smiling, they presented food for the soul to Executive Director Anna Carol Buffington.
Buffington accepted a pile of handwritten cards made from construction paper. Each one will go with a Thanksgiving meal given to a Meals on Wheels client.
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“Would you like your box back?” Buffington said to the women, who cheerfully replied that she could keep the polka-dotted container. “Are you sure?”
It was a rare reversal. For 25 years, Buffington has been on the giving end.
She’ll soon hand over the reins to someone else.
This year’s batch of turkey dinners will be the last under her direction. Buffington is retiring at the end of the year after leading the local Meals on Wheels chapter since 1988 and overseeing 1 million meals delivered.
It’s not that she’s lost her taste for feeding people.
“It’s just time,” she said.
When she steps aside for her successor, Buffington will leave a legacy of growth.
“It’s been a wonderful job to put my professional credentials and abilities to work to feed the hungry, and especially to feed senior citizens,” said Buffington, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist. “They’ve worked so hard all their lives.”
Started in 1971, State College Meals on Wheels today delivers about 43,000 meals annually, its staff of three helped by more than 200 drivers and other volunteers.
At the start of Buffington’s tenure, the organization had 70 clients. Now, it serves more than double that a week, providing close to 900 meals.
“I’ve seen the town grow,” Buffington said. “As the town has grown, the number of clients has increased each day.”
To keep pace, her facility had to expand as well.
Walmart Foundation grants meant for helping feed senior citizens allowed Meals on Wheels to transform the church’s dilapidated kitchen in 2010 and 2011. Senior citizens comprise about 80 percent of the local clients.
Originally with wooden cupboards and Formica countertops, the kitchen now sports stainless steel counters and sinks and modern commercial appliances. With the grants, Meals on Wheels could purchase a blast chiller — which cools food fresh from the ovens so it can be refrigerated more quickly — and renovate a storeroom into a walk-in refrigerator and freezer.
Increasing storage capacity ensured reserves for up to two weeks: insurance in case the regular supply chain from a Harrisburg distribution warehouse is disrupted.
“We have to be able to provide meals for people in case of an emergency,” Buffington said.
Grace Lutheran also benefited from the upgrades. In exchange for not charging Meals on Wheels rent, the congregation uses the equipment for its events.
“It’s a 100 percent food service kitchen,” Buffington said. “It’s inspected by the borough. It is so much easier to prepare meals there now.
“With a little creativity and timing of things, it could serve more, but at least it could take us into the future, which was the purpose of it.”
In 2009, a Walmart grant covered the cost of another modernization: about 50 blue insulated meal carriers.
“We had very heavy carriers that the older volunteers had difficulty picking up and carrying when they were loaded with food,” Buffington said. “These are lightweight, constructed like pizza delivery boxes. The insides are the same as those, but they’re specifically made for Meals on Wheels food trays.”
Throughout all the changes, one constant was Buffington’s idea.
She started the cards on her first Valentine’s Day as executive director, placing little store-bought valentines in each meal bag.
That afternoon, a client called in tears to say thanks.
“One little valentine meant so much to her,” Buffington said. “She said, ‘I didn’t get any from anyone else.’ ”
Ever since, Meals on Wheels holiday meals have come with cards. They’re made as community service by Girl and Boy Scouts and students from elementary school to college.
“It’s something they can do, and it’s just a little touch for the clients,” Buffington said. “It says somebody is thinking of you today.”
One Gamma Sigma Sigma card exemplified the notes’ buoyant cheer. “You rock my socks off!” it proclaimed inside.
Buffington has seen firsthand how much the messages can mean.
“Some of our clients have very little family, if any,” she said. “They’ll put these on their refrigerators as if their grandchildren sent them.”
Her oldest client now is a 103-year-old woman. Her youngest was a 19-year-old single mother trying to care for a toddler while pregnant and bedridden.
She’ll miss them all, but she can take solace in knowing they’ll still eat well, thanks to her two cooks, Dale Thomas and Jim Johnston, both local chefs.
“It’s in very capable hands,” she said. “I was gone in October for a week and a half, and it never missed a beat.
“My philosophy of being a supervisor has always been to train the employees as well as you can possibly train them, and then give them the freedom to do their job. And both of them are very creative.”
Once free from managing the daily operations, she’ll have more time to travel with her husband, Dennis, a retired Penn State professor, and visit her two grandchildren in Chicago. Finally, she’ll get to see their school plays and choral concerts.
But she’s not saying goodbye to Meals on Wheels — or the longtime volunteers who have come to be friends.
With hunger among senior citizens on the rise in Pennsylvania, she’ll stay on the board of the state Meals On Wheels association. She’ll also serve on the board of directors of Aging in Place/Centre County, a volunteer organization that helps senior citizens with chores and daily needs.
From time to time, she’ll even grab a blue carrier, hop in her car and deliver meals.
A local resident for almost 40 years, she knows all the streets and alleys, making her as qualified to handle this end of the job as the other.
“If we can’t get the meals to our clients, it doesn’t matter how many we make,” she said. “My daughters jokingly say I can get through town without a traffic light.”