“Hello? Hello? Grace, where are you?”
The look on the face of David Bustillos went from worry to near panic as he quickly scurried from room to room in the small Los Chavez area home. The door was open, the radio was on, but no sign of Grace. The stress in Bustillos’ voice carried the concern.
“Are you OK, Grace?”
A few minutes into the search, a neighbor popped through the doorway.
“Grace is fine. She’s outside.”
With a sigh of relief, Bustillos went to the side of the house, where soon-to-be 88-year-old Grace Honeycutt was trying her best to keep up with some yard work.
“I have to get out in the sun. I have to do something,” Grace growled, with a hint of a smile. “I’m an old ranch girl and to sit in the house looking like a toad stool, it’s not my forte. If you know what I mean.”
Grace is one of the seniors who receives home-bound meals from the Valencia County Older American Program based out of the Belen Senior Center.
Bustillos was on his daily run as one of five meal delivery drivers when the excitement at Grace’s home got his blood pumping.
Despite the occasional fright, “It’s very satisfying work,” Bustillos said. “It’s a great experience because we do this for people that really need it.”
It all starts for the drivers at 7:30 a.m. each weekday. They pick up and return seniors who are unable to take themselves to senior centers in Belen, Bosque Farms, Meadow Lake, Los Lunas or Rio Communities for lunch and different activities. The drivers cover the entire county, from Bosque Farms to the north, to the Socorro County line to the south.
In addition to those trips, Bustillos and the others prepare paper bags for delivery.
“In their bags are your milks, your salads. All your cold stuff for the day,” said Lydia Maldonado, the programs’ operations manager, who oversees the five senior centers in the county.
The next assignment for the drivers is to package the hot meals prepared by the cooks that morning in the center’s kitchen.
“They’re more than just drivers. Everybody has a food handler’s license,” Maldonado explained.
With the meals ready to go, Bustillos loads the specially designed “hot shot” truck. The bags are placed in a refrigerated compartment while the trays with the main course slide into a heated section.
Bustillos says he spends four to five hours a day covering his route.
“I pick up people in Los Lunas and take them to the Los Lunas center,” in addition to dropping off meals. These services are for people who are at least 60 years old.
The suggested donation for each meal is $2, but “we’re still going to feed you if you can’t donate,” Maldonado says. Among her responsibilities is to assess the situations of seniors who get meals and keep up with paperwork so the program follows guidelines. That is necessary so meals can be reimbursed to the county by the state of New Mexico.
On this Wednesday, the entree is green chile cheeseburgers with beans.
“All of our meals must be approved by the state,” Maldonado said. “It’s kind of like a school lunch menu. We make sure you have dairy, enough fruits and vegetables for the day, and then your protein.”
Back in Los Chavez, when asked about how tasty the meals are, Grace responded with a laugh.
“Well, I’m just an old ranch girl, you know. Steaks and taters,” are her preference. “I get what everybody else gets and its nourishing — the food is good.”
These daily driver visits are not just bringing food for the body, but nourishment for the soul.
“They have been very, very kind to me,” Grace said, “and it’s a big, big help.”
For Bustillos, it is easy to see his work is appreciated.
“Absolutely. Everybody’s got a big smile when we get there,” Bustillos said. “Everybody says ‘thank you.’ Some people say we’re the only people they talk with all day.”
“They are amazing,” Maldonado adds. “They play a big role, building relationships. Our drivers are their human contact every day, Monday through Friday.”
Maldonado shares that drivers have discovered seniors who had fallen, were ill or worse.
“These seniors are isolated,” she said. “They don’t see anybody.”
Grace, who manages several physical ailments, has been among those who have been rescued.
“Oh yes, because my legs give out and I fall. They’ll poke their head in the door and holler at me, ‘Are you alright?’”
Bustillos is easy to chat with and seems a natural for the job.
“I like to help people, especially the older people,” he said. “They’ve done a lot for our community before, so it’s time to give something back.”
For information about the services provided by the Valencia County Older American Program, including medical transportation to a doctor or pharmacy, call the Belen Senior Center at 505-864-2663.
In addition to Belen, senior centers are located in Los Lunas, Rio Communities, Meadow Lake and Bosque Farms.
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.