Caryl Nuckols and Judy Jepsen-Popel in 1981

In this October 1981 photo, Judy Jepsen-Popel, left, and Caryl Nuckols, both members of the Paxton Hospital Auxiliary, deliver a meal to Ruby Noble — the first recipient of a meal through Paxton’s Meals on Wheels program. The Paxton Hospital Auxiliary decided to start the Meals on Wheels program upon the request of the Paxton Area Ministerial Association. At that time, the meals would be prepared in the local hospital’s kitchen and then volunteers — including members of the hospital’s auxiliary and local churches — would deliver them for a donation of $2 per meal each weekday, including on holidays.

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PAXTON — For nearly four decades, Caryl and Bob Nuckols volunteered countless hours to ensure homebound Paxton residents would not go hungry.

From October 1981 until this past July, the couple were heavily involved in the local Meals on Wheels program. Caryl Nuckols helped facilitate the program from its start, and she and her husband were among the many faithful volunteers who delivered prepared lunches every Monday through Friday to residents who otherwise may have gone without.

While it hasn’t happened just yet, someday the retired Paxton couple may be on the receiving end of that effort.

“Well, at $3.50 a day, I might,” Caryl Nuckols said with a laugh.

“You can’t beat the price,” Bob Nuckols said.

Although the Meals on Wheels program was disbanded in July, the benefits the program brought to the community continue to this day. It was also in July when the Paxton Peace Meal program began delivering meals to homebound residents, just as the Meals on Wheels program had done the previous 38 years.

“I was ready to hand it over to someone,” Caryl Nuckols said about the reason for the switch.

“Caryl and I were getting tired ... and they stepped up,” Bob Nuckols said.

Bob and Caryl Nuckols aren’t completely stepping away from the meal-delivery effort — as both continue to serve as substitute delivery drivers for the Peace Meal program — but they now don’t need to be the go-to people making sure everything goes smoothly. That responsibility now lies with Peace Meal program coordinator Cathy Whitcomb.

“We’ll do everything we can as far as helping them out — delivering, whatever,” Bob Nuckols said.

Since July, the meals have been prepared at a kitchen in Rantoul and then delivered to the Paxton Civic Center. Around 10:45 a.m., volunteer delivery drivers arrive to pick up the meals to be delivered to residents of Paxton who have been placed on the delivery list through referrals. There is a suggested donation of $3.50 per meal.

“The meals are really well balanced,” Bob Nuckols said, with each containing hot food, vegetables, bread, milk and dessert.

Recipients of the meals are typically elderly, although there are no age restrictions. Some have been having meals delivered to their homes for years, while others receive the meals for only a short period of time as they recover from a surgery, for example.

“The oldest one we have is 96,” Bob Nuckols said.

Before the Peace Meal program took over the meal-delivery initiative on July 1, there had been a gradual decline in the number of meal recipients. A few years ago, the Meals on Wheels program had been providing home-delivered meals to as many as 24 people in a single day, and in the last three years, the number of different clients totaled 128. In an eight-month period in 2018, delivered were 2,482 meals, but from January to June 2019, deliveries dropped to 1,761.

“I don’t know why (the number of clients has decreased),” Caryl Nuckols said. “I don’t think we were getting the referrals. It’s like (it depended on) word-of-mouth almost.”

The Meals on Wheels program began in 1981 with “very few” clients — perhaps five or six, Caryl Nuckols said. The first meal was delivered that October to Ruby Noble by Nuckols and fellow Meals on Wheals volunteer Judy Jepsen-Popel.

Both Nuckols and Jepsen-Popel were members of the Paxton Hospital Auxiliary, which decided to start the Meals on Wheels program upon the request of the Paxton Area Ministerial Association. At that time, the meals would be prepared in the hospital’s kitchen and then volunteers — including members of the hospital’s auxiliary and local churches — would deliver them for a donation of $2 per meal each weekday, including on holidays.

“It was a new venture,” Caryl Nuckols said, noting that there was no other program like it in Paxton back then.

Caryl Nuckols and Jepsen-Popel were the early facilitators of the Meals on Wheels program, with Nuckols’ primary responsibility being to line up the necessary 15 to 20 volunteer delivery drivers. Eventually, Caryl Nuckols became the program’s primary facilitator, handling the program’s finances, as well.

When the hospital closed in the late 1980s and the hospital’s auxiliary disbanded, the Paxton Service Club became the Meals on Wheels program’s sponsoring organization. Meal preparation was also moved at that time to the Illinois Knights Templar Home in Paxton.

When the Heartland Health Care Center opened, meal preparation was then done there. A couple of years ago, meal preparation was moved back to the Illinois Knights Templar Home facility, which was renamed Accolade Healthcare of Paxton Senior Living.

Throughout all of the changes, there was one constant: Bob and Caryl Nuckols.

But there have been many other “faithful” volunteers, too, Bob Nuckols said. Today, there are some 15 to 20 volunteer delivery drivers, but more are always needed, he said.

“I try to train all of the new ones,” Bob Nuckols said. “The last group I did, I told them, ‘It’s going to take you about 45 minutes with two of you (to complete the delivery route).’ I said, ‘It’s going to be very rewarding for you, and you’re going to feel better about yourself when you get it done.’”

Besides receiving a warm meal at their door every Monday through Friday, the meal-delivery program has other benefits to its clients, Bob Nuckols said. One of those additional benefits is that someone is checking on them five days a week, making sure they are OK.

“A couple of times we found people down (on the floor unable to get up),” Bob Nuckols said. “If we hadn’t have been there, they would have laid there for hours.

“And we had one elderly woman on the program who didn’t want (the meals) — in fact, she threw a meal in a snow bank when the Rev. Bodeen delivered it one day. But her son said: ‘I don’t care (if she doesn’t want them) as long as somebody’s checking on her. I don’t care if she eats it or not, just that somebody knows she’s up and about.’”

For more information about the meal-delivery program, people can call Whitcomb at 841-6650.