If you heard USF’s College of Public Health alumna Lauren Vance singing to herself about rice and beans as she packs her car, you might think she’s a little too excited for lunch.
But to the hundreds of community members who receive a hot meal daily through Meals on Wheels of Tampa, Vance’s passion and enthusiasm not only keeps them fed, but visits from her and other community volunteers are also keeping them company.
“They’re no longer able to get out and do the things they once could do,” Vance said. “So we go visiting, and we bring them the meal they need.”
Currently, with the help of about 360 volunteers, Meals on Wheels of Tampa serves 700 seniors and homebound individuals daily in the Tampa area.
Vance first learned about Meals on Wheels when her grandmother began receiving meals back home.
“I’m from Illinois, and my grandmother lived about an hour away in Indiana, and she finally got to the point where she couldn’t cook anymore,” she said. “She couldn’t stand for long periods of time, and going up and down stairs was difficult.”
Meals on Wheels provided meal solutions for both her grandmother and her aunt, who had moved in as caretaker.
“She received Meals on Wheels for the last six years of her life, and loved it—just loved it,” she said. “Those volunteers coming every day to see her were the highlight of her day.”
In 2012, Vance moved to Tampa to pursue her MPH at USF. When she arrived, she knew no one.
“I spent summers, because my load was a little lighter, delivering meals, because I wanted to feel close to my family,” she said. “That was my way of connecting with this community and feeling like I belonged and finding people I could connect with.”
Vance was able to use her relationship with the organization to complete her special project towards her degree, under the guidance of nutritionist and registered dietician Dr. Lauri Wright from USF. The study measured the impact of Meals on Wheels of Tampa in terms of nutrition, hunger, food security, and loneliness and well-being. It’s been published and presented, and other programs are able to learn from it.
The real-life application of her work at USF is something that Vance is incredibly appreciative of.
“They’re front-line and hands-on,” she said. “And that’s so important.”
Vance was originally drawn to USF because of its master’s international program, which combines a master’s degree with the Peace Corps. Once she arrived, however, she decided that the best use of her energy would be to give back to the community right here.
“Having a career with Meals on Wheels—it became my dream,” she said. “I just knew I wanted to help people and wanted to work for a not-for-profit on the community level.”
Vance says that seeing the direct impact on the community every day is what inspires her. She recalls one woman, who had bright eyes and spunky short hair, who would always kiss her on the cheeks and thank God when she’d arrive to deliver her meal.
“Those are the moments you don’t forget,” Vance said. “When there are tears in someone’s eyes because you brought them a meal, I mean, it’s powerful stuff.”
Now, instead of the word volunteer next to her name, Vance is director of communications for Meals on Wheels of Tampa, a position she’s held since graduating with her MPH in 2014.
“My degree gave me, truly, the tools I needed to be able to function here every day,” she said. “I learned how to develop programs, work with community partners, learn about assets in the community and, to not replicate or duplicate, but to build on what’s already been created.”
It’s been two years since she left the school, but Meals on Wheels of Tampa frequently partners with USF in the community, a relationship that Vance values.
“To learn with USF, and then grow and to still be connected—I love that,” she said.
As for the future, Vance says that she just hopes to keep growing with the agency and to serve more people in the community. She’s left the future open-ended, and she said that another degree or maybe even teaching at the university level, as well as continuing with her current research and program development, are all things she’s considering.
“I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing,” she said. “And I’ll be happy.”
Story by AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley, USF College of Public Health