Kay Mabie is one of those force-of-nature types every community needs.
Thirty-two years ago, she began volunteering as a driver for the Glenbrook Meals at Home program, delivering healthy meals to elderly and infirm people who have trouble preparing their own.
About that same time, she got a new computer and suggested to the program’s director she could make the operation more efficient by computerizing its record-keeping. The director told her they’d discuss it after the holidays.
Mabie came back after the new year to find the director had died. In short order, she was running the show, still as a volunteer.
Now, more than three decades later, Mabie is handing off her administrative responsibilities — in effect merging the Glenbrook program with the organization on which it was originally patterned, Meals at Home of Evanston.
“Because I’m 82,” Mabie said Friday from the basement of Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview, where she was taking her weekly turn packing nutritious, reasonably priced meals for delivery to clients in Glenview, Northfield and Northbrook.
Having just watched Mabie gather meal items from the hospital kitchen, singlehandedly lifting food-filled trays and baskets as necessary, I persisted with the question.
“I was worried about the future of the organization,” Mabie explained, noting that volunteers who can devote the kind of time she does are harder to find.
Mabie didn’t see a logical successor from within the organization’s ranks, so instead she began looking around at other programs.
The larger, Evanston-based Meals at Home program — which, in addition to Evanston, already was serving clients in Skokie, New Trier Township and parts of Lake County — was the logical fit.
“Their philosophy is the same as ours,” Mabie said. “We’re not looking to make money off old, sick people.”
Debi Genthe, the Evanston program’s director, said the group was honored to have passed muster with Mabie, knowing her attachment to those she helps.
“It’s a lot to hand off. She’s done so much,” said Genthe, who is working with Mabie to make the transition as seamless as possible for clients and volunteers.
That includes the duties of record-keeping and billing, recruiting new drivers and scheduling delivery routes and menu planning, the latter requiring special emphasis on the details of restricted diets.
I became acquainted with Genthe and the good works of the Evanston organization last spring when I wrote about the Trump administration threatening to slash federal Community Development Block Grants, an important funding source for meals-on-wheels programs.
The fate of that funding remains uncertain. Which is more of a problem for delivered-meals programs in large cities such as Chicago.
Meals at Home’s block grant of $15,000 from the city of Evanston is just a fraction of its total budget, which relies more on private donations. But every dollar matters in a small, volunteer-driven organization.
Mabie and her husband Jim Mabie are perhaps better known for their philanthropic efforts on behalf of Chicago’s arts community. She allowed that the Chicago High School for the Arts especially occupies an equal place in her heart as the meals program.
But I think what impressed me most was seeing that, rather than just being someone who writes big checks, she does the hands-on, nitty-gritty work.
Mabie took care to make sure she wasn’t giving the wrong items to someone with diabetes or renal disease, sorting the yogurt from the fresh strawberries from the applesauce.
Nearly as impressive, she never balked once at my taking a photo of her wearing a not-especially-flattering hairnet.
Mabie told me she still fills in as the backup driver when necessary, which allows her to maintain the connection to homebound seniors that those who work in these programs find so rewarding.
She also said she plans to continue packing meals.
“For a little while,” she said.