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In one community, hope restored amid sequestration’s toll

On the day that Meals on Wheels came back to the Jersey Shore, Beckie Dye walked up to a white house near the beach, holding two vacuum-sealed plates of sweet-and-sour chicken, carrots and peas.

“Hello. Hello?” she called. “Hi! It’s Beckie. Meals on Wheels!”

Silence.

“You don’t know what to do,” Dye said, hesitating at the door. “Do you go in?”

The door was unlocked. She entered. After she’d taken a few steps into the living room, a damp-looking woman emerged, wearing a bathrobe with the Knights of Columbus logo.

Winners and losers in sequester budget cuts

Dye explained herself. She explained the chicken, carrots and peas.

The woman in the bathrobe started to cry.

“My husband’s blind, and he has Parkinson’s and a million other things,” she said. Her name is Maureen. Her husband’s name is Thomas. They have been married 62 years. That morning, it had taken her an hour and a half to get him showered, dressed and ready to eat breakfast and listen to audiotapes in the living room.

“I don’t mean to do this,” Maureen said, crying as she explained all that.

Dye put her arms around her.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m Beckie, hon.”

This was Monday morning, on the day that some of sequestration’s worst losers found out they were not losers any more.

Nationally, Meals on Wheels — a program that delivers hot meals to home-bound people older than 60 — was hit hard by sequestration, with many programs forced to make painful cutbacks in the short term.

Here in New Jersey, the Ocean County Meals on Wheels program lost $30,000 of its $1 million in federal funds. That loss compounded financial problems left over from last fall, when Hurricane Sandy shut down their kitchens and forced $129,000 in unplanned spending.

So they were losers among losers. As a result, local Meals on Wheels officials made a hard decision. When elderly people returned to their rebuilding section of the Shore, they were told there was no money to bring them food.

Until Monday last week. On that day — thanks to internal budget cuts and $39,000 in new money from the private Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund — the service was restored in that area for the first time in a year. Dye set out to bring meals to nine homes.

At the fourth house, on that first day, were Thomas and Maureen. All of a sudden, a simple food delivery turned into a lesson on the bottomless responsibility of marriage.

And the incredible value of a visitor, in a house where people feel alone.

“He has diabetes. He has three heart stents. And he’s got this right knee that is just completely shot,” Maureen said, ticking off the rest of her husband’s health problems.

“Other than that, I’m fine,” said Thomas, who had been moved in to greet the visitors.

“Other than that, his vital signs are good,” Maureen conceded. “The parts are falling off.”

Dye explained how Meals on Wheels worked. The couple, however, seemed unsure if it would really work for them: Maureen rarely had a free moment to leave the house. She didn’t want to be forced to stay home to wait for the food.

But Dye made her pitch. The deliveries would come every day — two hot dinners, plus two bags with a juice cup, milk, bread, fruit and dessert. And they could work around the couple’s schedule.

“That can go in the microwave?” Maureen asked about the food. It could.

“You’ll be there at 8:30 in the morning?” Thomas asked. She would.

They decided they would give it a try. “My front door is always open,” Maureen told her.

Dye walked out the door and closed it behind her. “And those are the moments,” she said.

The cost of that encounter was slightly more than $16, including the chicken, carrots and peas. Afterward, Dye got back in her car and headed out to finish her delivery route. She had five more stops.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

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