Meet Henry King: 49 years old. Married. Works at Costco. On the quiet side, but pleasant and quick with a smile. Drives a sun-beaten Toyota RAV4.
For the most part, an ordinary guy.
But every Thursday, to nine households in the University-Kapahulu area, he is a godsend.
Four years ago, King saw a newspaper ad for the Lanakila Meals on Wheels program and decided to answer its call for volunteers.
"I don’t know," he says. "I just thought I’d give it a try.
"I had never done anything like it before in my life. I had never volunteered for anything. But I just figured — and it’s a cliche, yes, but it’s true — that I had some time and this could be a way for me to help other people and to give back, you know?"
Nowadays, elderly couples like Benjamin and Rita Pang count on King and look forward to his weekly knock on the screen door.
The Pangs, who have been married for 63 years, still live at home even though both are ailing. They depend on the prepared meals King delivers on his day off to help keep them healthy so they won’t have to go to a nursing home.
Every day, more than 300 Lanakila Meals on Wheels volunteers like King help pack and deliver more than 1,400 meals — primarily to homebound seniors such as the Pangs, who are unable to prepare their own food.
But demand for services, which has grown steadily over the years, is expected to soar in the near future. The first of Hawaii’s baby boomers turn 65 next year and by 2030, one in four island residents will be 60 or older.
"We’ve already got people we’re serving who are in their 90s, up to 98 years old, who are still living by themselves," says Lanakila Meals on Wheels director Toni Fegers.
With delivery routes already being expanded and new programs for seniors in the works, Lanakila Meals on Wheels is putting out a renewed call for help.
"We can’t exist without volunteers; they’re the hub," Fegers says. "We’re pushing real hard for volunteers, people who care and who may be looking for some way to help somebody out."
LOCAL STYLE, RITA PANG APOLOGIZES, even though there’s no reason to, as her husband Benjamin slowly backs her wheelchair away from the door so a newspaper reporter and photographer can come in to talk for a few minutes.
To find out how to apply for Lanakila Meals on Wheels home delivery service or other meal options, or to volunteer, call 531-0555 or go to http://www.lanakilapacific.org/more-than-a-meal.asp
"Sorry," she says. "I cannot move so fast anymore."
Rita, who just turned 84, lost her legs below the knees to diabetes seven years ago. Benjamin, who will be 90 in March, needs a cane to get around — unless he happens to be moving Rita from one room to another, in which case he uses her wheelchair as a walker.
"We help each other that way," he says with a smile.
The Pangs have been married for 63 years and intend to live in their home in Kapahulu for as long as they can. They’ve always taken care of each other, even as time and infirmity have exacted a heavy toll. They remain in remarkable spirits.
With their sons working, the Pangs are on their own during the day, and Benjamin serves as Rita’s sole caregiver. They depend on volunteer driver Henry King’s weekly delivery of prepared meals from Lanakila Meals on Wheels — which always come with generous sides of compassion and human touch — to help keep them as healthy as possible so they won’t have to go to a nursing home.
"As long as she’s well, I’m happy," Benjamin says as he rubs Rita’s neck and shoulders.
"We always have to watch her blood pressure and her sugar count. The blood pressure part I can do, but my son has to take care of the sugar count. The blood sugar … that’s the main concern. That’s why the meals are so important. She has to take her meals at certain times of the day, because if she doesn’t get enough food in her it can upset her blood sugar and she could go into a coma.
"My son got us on Meals on Wheels five, maybe six years ago, and it has really helped us. That’s why we appreciate what Henry does. We feel like he keeps an eye on us and he’s helping to take care of us."
Welcome to the future, says Toni Fegers, director of Lanakila Meals on Wheels.
Like most in her field, Fegers sees a crisis on the horizon — a "silver tsunami," she called it in a story she wrote for MidWeek — with the first of Hawaii’s baby boomers turning 65 next year. By 2030, when the last boomers hit 65, one in four people in the islands will be 60 or older.
Long before then, advocates noted in the Star-Advertiser’s recent series "Graying of Hawaii," the options for long-term senior care in Hawaii will have shriveled — with nursing facilities fewer and far more expensive — and the primary focus shifted to in-home living, as many seniors already are saying it should be.
For Lanakila Meals on Wheels, that means plans for expanding existing core programs — such as the home delivery service and kupuna wellness centers, where seniors who aren’t homebound can socialize, exercise and eat a nutritious meal — as well as creating new ways to serve the elderly.
"We’re trying to develop a call-care program where we would match a senior with a volunteer who will phone them just to see how they are, like a daily check-in call," Fegers says. "We’re also working to come up with a program where teams of people go into seniors’ homes and check for safety issues, like tripping on rugs or (electrical) cords, and then having another team go in and fix things. And we’re thinking about a program where we take homebound seniors and do an evening outing every now and then, just to get them out. Some of them are just sitting in a chair all day. Some of them have nobody."
On Christmas Day, no one on a route will be forgotten. Volunteers that morning will be delivering a special hot meal of chicken with Mornay sauce and garlic mashed potatoes, along with a gingerbread cookie and an individual gift package.
"We’ve got things like bath gels, gift certificates and slippers that businesses and people donated," Fegers said. "Volunteers will be holding a gift-wrapping party to put the packages together. And school students have made cards, so we’ll be adding those as well. "
Fegers says Lanakila Meals on Wheels has enough volunteer drivers for Christmas, but will need many more for after the holidays.
"We’re trying to develop all these new programs, but it’s real hard because our volunteers for drivers are so low," Fegers says. "We’re so short we’ve got staff going out and doing routes. But I’ve always told them, ‘You can talk the talk, but when you actually go out and walk it, you get to really see what we’re about.’ It’s a warm feeling when you help somebody out. I started out driving as a volunteer (in Florida), and that’s how I fell in love with the program."
Fegers says potential volunteers are encouraged to "come in and ride a route with one of the drivers just to get a feel for what it’s like."
"Some people ask, ‘How long will it take me to do a route?’ And we’ll them, ‘Let’s say two hours, but depending on how long you may want to sit and talk to somebody’ — because a lot of the people get attached to the volunteer, and the drivers can get real involved — ‘it could end up being six hours.’
"I remember going to this man’s house once. He was blind, and when I went into his house, there was nothing on the walls and no lighting. He asked me to heat his meal because he liked it warm, so I did that and put it in a bowl. And we sat and talked for a while and then I told him I had to go. And he said, ‘That’s the story of my life: People come and then they go.’ I felt so bad about leaving. So it just depends."
Back in Kapahulu, after a visit with the Pangs — the fourth stop out of nine on his route — King takes a quick break in the shade of their carport and marvels at his four years as a volunteer.
"I can’t believe it sometimes," he says, "but it’s part of my routine now and I really look forward to it.
"At first you’re kind of like, ‘Are you crazy?’ But the more you do it, the more you feel like you’re really helping to make a difference in somebody’s life and that feels good."
King says he has come to develop relationships with most of the people he serves on his route.
"Some you get more attached to than others," he says. "Like the Pangs. They are really nice people. I see them in Costco once in a while. So, yeah, it’s kind of neat.
"Most of them are on their own, though. And they can be very lonely. They just need someone to talk to for a while … just a chat. The second stop I made today … he just lost his wife, so this will be his first Christmas alone. So it can be very sad, too."
Still, King has no regrets and urges others to volunteer.
"It’s not something you have to commit to," he says. "Even if you only do it for two weeks, at least you’ve helped somebody for that long. And you never know: You might find out you like it, because the people you help really appreciate what you do."