MANKATO — When Marcia Olauson envisioned a food shelf delivery program, she figured it’d be easy enough to find a volunteer for each recipient.

Turns out it didn’t work that way.

Recipients and volunteers came and went, their circumstances changing, putting more work on Olauson’s shoulders.

“When you get any organization going, at first people jump on it and there’s a great deal of enthusiasm and then it wanes a little bit,” she said. “Right now we’re in that waning period and people kind of forget about it.”

Olauson oversees the ECHO Delivers Outreach Program, the food shelf’s program for clients facing physical disability or transportation barriers. She’s one of about 52 drivers delivering to 73 households with 126 people.

Having 52 helpers for 73 deliveries may sound like a manageable ratio, but the volunteer numbers are often lower. When people go south for winter, fall ill or have a time conflict, Olauson and the remaining volunteers carry more of the load.

At its worst, Olauson made 17 deliveries in one month. She and others regularly make four to six per month, racking up hours of volunteer work.

Carlienne Frisch makes four deliveries per month. She’s been delivering to one lady for about five years — as long as the program has been around — and said filling the need is satisfying.

But just as no one should go hungry in a country as prosperous as the U.S., she said no volunteer should be handling 17 deliveries in a month.

“It’s a really important thing to be doing, and we need lots more people doing it,” she said.

While the need for more volunteers is clear, Olauson is quick to say she loves her clients. Many get help from family and friends at times, but they can’t rely on that goodwill all the time.

“You need somebody who can say I’ll be that reliable source for you,” she said. “Well, we’ll be that reliable source.”

At 74, Olauson estimates she’s only slightly older than the average volunteer in the program. She once had to talk a woman in her upper 80s into stopping for safety reasons, and she sees a day when a new crop of volunteers will need to carry on the program.

“She felt so guilty about quitting because she felt there’d be no one to take her place,” she said.

Volunteers get order forms for each household. From years of deliveries, Olauson said she has a sense of what clients want when ECHO has special items and what items to avoid due to allergies or tastes.

Once the orders are filled, the volunteers load up their cars and zip off to make their deliveries. The process takes about an hour, possibly more if they stay and visit with the recipient — similar to Meals on Wheels, the deliveries are also a way to check on shut-ins.

ECHO’s delivery numbers could rise as more people quarantine themselves in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. ECHO Assistant Manager Sara Diel said more clients have been requesting deliveries lately, but the program is limited to those who can’t physically make it to the food shelf.

Precautions are in place for those who can get to ECHO. Rather than letting clients go through food aisles themselves, the nonprofit is preparing carts by appointment at its Front Street door.

Delivery program volunteers typically hand off groceries to recipients. They might have to switch to dropping the food off on doorsteps, Diel said.

About 10 more volunteers would at least provide a cushion for the delivery program. The work is flexible, so volunteers can work out delivery times to fit their schedules.

In encouraging new volunteers to step in, Olauson pointed to the bonds she’s made with recipients through the years. She and the program need more help, but those connections are why she doesn’t plan to quit any time soon.

“I wouldn’t give them away for anything because they’re mine,” she said. “You do develop that relationship with them. They’re my people.”

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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