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Serving up love

After 27 years and hip surgery, Meals on Wheels volunteer Joyce Balsley shows no signs of calling it quits.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 29, 2002


[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Gretchen McKenna, 92, gets a meal from Joyce Balsley. left, and Maxine Browning, right. Daily interaction is as important as the food, experts say.
PORT TAMPA -- Even in the hospital, recovering from hip replacement surgery, Joyce Balsley couldn't stop worrying.

Not about herself. About her "recipients."

Balsley, 68, wanted to make sure the people she served as a Meals on Wheels volunteer were still getting the special care she showered on them. Her family, running delivery routes without her, got grilled when they came to visit.

"We had to report and say, 'Yes, we did it,' " said daughter Kathy Browning.

No one who knows Balsley would be surprised.

The unassuming woman with the chirpy Texas twang is among the longest serving Meals on Wheels volunteers in Tampa. She joined in September 1975, just a few months after the local chapter began.

Since then, she has helped deliver some 13,000 meals to people too sick or old to cook their own.

"She's like the mother hen," said husband Ken.

"She's an angel," said recipient Darlene Williamson.

The Port Tampa resident insists her motivation is simple: Some people need help. Some have the good fortune to lend a hand.

"We see so many people down and out," said Balsley, one of four children raised by a single mom in Wichita Falls, Texas. "When they get better, it's like a high for us."

Balsley married Ken, an Air Force man, when she was 16. She raised two daughters while they moved from base to base. She never had a paying job.

Her work is Meals on Wheels.

Every Wednesday, she meets other volunteers at Bel-Mar Presbyterian Church on Manhattan Avenue. They load coolers with food prepared in the Meals on Wheels kitchen, then hit the road.

Balsley drives a teal-blue Plymouth Voyager with three family members in tow: her husband, her daughter and Maxine Browning, her daughter's mother-in-law. Over the years, Balsley persuaded them to help. Now, her husband said, moving meals is "a family affair."

Their route includes about 10 stops in Port Tampa, Interbay and Gandy.

On a recent Wednesday, they set off with neatly packed servings of roast beef, green beans and seasoned potatoes. For dessert: butterscotch pudding and fruit cocktail.

Since her surgery last year, Browning carries the food while Balsley does the knocking.

"Do you want a hug today?" Balsley asked an elderly woman at Westshore Mobile Home Park, after they drop off a meal.

"I could always use a hug," the woman said.

A few minutes later, Balsley greeted Gretchen McKenna, 92.

"So you're doing all right?" Balsley asked in the woman's carport.

"Oh, yeah," came the response. "Every day."

McKenna exchanges craft work with Balsley and Browning. Not long ago she made dish scrubbies for them; she got crocheted book covers in return.

Meals on Wheels serves about 450 people in Tampa. As important as the food is the daily interaction with other people.

Balsley and Browning recalled one man they described as a hard-core drunk. Early on, he answered the door unshaven, wearing a ratty bathrobe. But before long, he greeted them "dressed to the hilt," Balsley said.

Why the change? "Somebody came every day and cared," she said.

For some recipients, she and Browning bake birthday cakes. For others, they attend funerals.

During the holidays, they whip up homemade cookies and bread for the recipients while Ken plays Santa. Balsley sorts through gifts donated to Meals and Wheels, looking for just the right thing.

It makes a world of difference "when they're not forgotten on special occasions," she said.

At another mobile home, Balsley's knock doesn't bring a response.

Browning walked to the end of the home and pounded on its side. A minute later, Darlene Williamson stood in the doorway, beaming.

Severe arthritis in her hip and spine leave Williamson in a wheelchair most of the time. When she's not in the wheelchair, she's prone to falling.

Once, she went to the hospital without telling Meals on Wheels. When Balsley and Browning didn't get a response at the door, they talked to neighbors and park managers until they knew Williamson was okay.

"They watch out for me," Williamson said.

All in a day's work, said Balsley, one of about 500 volunteers.

After 27 years, she shows no signs of calling it quits.

"I said I was going to retire after 20 years, then I said 25. Now I'm saying 30," she said. "I guess I'll keep doing it until I can't drive the van anymore."

Her family snickered. Said her daughter: "Then she'll have one of us drive it for her."

-- Staff writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

Joyce Balsley

  • AGE: 68
  • HOME: Port Tampa
  • PROFESSION: Meals on Wheels volunteer
  • FAMILY: Husband, Ken; daughters, Kathy Browning and Christine Balsley
  • HOBBIES: Needlework, beadwork, collecting model trains
  • OTHER CAUSES: Cracker Country at Florida State Fairgrounds. She teaches kids how to make candles.

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