Peoria's South Side Mission is trying to help out a group that is often overlooked -- the elderly poor.
PEORIA - Shirley Knell, 83, loves coffee, but, no, she never tasted Starbucks. Never heard of Starbucks.
"I'm going to bring you some of that fancy-schmancy coffee," said Robin Winfrey, who was visiting Knell in her room at Bel-Wood Nursing Home as part of a new elderly outreach program started by South Side Mission.
The glimmer of a smile flitted across Knell's face.
"I like my coffee," she said.
Rather than expecting elderly residents of the South Side to reach out to food banks, clinics, warming stations and other social service agencies, the mission's new program is structured around visiting people in their own homes, apartments and rooms, listening to them with a discerning ear.
The voices of America's elderly poor are largely unheard, drowned out by the clamor of community, regional, national and global issues. Philip Newton, executive director of South Side Mission, conceived of this new outreach program based on his own observation of needs that are often seen but unseen.
His concept began to jell while vacationing and eating at a Taco Bell with his family. An elderly man came into the restaurant and sat quietly at a table in the back of the dining room. A number of people saw him.
"I knew he was hungry," Newton said. "When my family finished eating, there was still a wrapped, untouched taco on our table."
Newton picked up the wrapped taco, walked over and offered it to the man, who accepted it and immediately left the restaurant.
When Newton was driving away, he saw the man standing in the restaurant parking lot eating the taco.
"He was too proud to ask for help," Newton said. "We see a lot of people who won't ask for help. When we look carefully, we will see people in our community who are eating dog food for dinner. People who can't afford to pay electric bills and medications. It's shameful what the elderly are going through in our community."
Hunger and need often are out in the open but unrecognized, Newton said. His new program is designed to bring more eyes and ears to the problem.
The South Side Mission's elderly outreach program will help with substandard housing, loneliness, family reconciliation, inadequate food and medical care.
The mission has adopted blocks within the 61605 ZIP code where gross average household income in 2005 was $20,000, placing the area in the nation's poorest 3 percentile. About 20 percent of residents in the 61605 ZIP code are seniors.
Meg Newell, spokeswoman for the mission, said gross average household income in the 61615 ZIP code that includes Dunlap is $81,000, placing it in the top 93rd percentile in the nation.
"Less than 10 miles apart, and there is a startling contrast between people with such great need living so close to people doing well," Newell said. "We think of South American countries where people with such need live in the shadow of great wealth, but that is the contrast in our own community."
Winfrey, a registered nurse, began in January as director of the mission's new outreach program. She is still in the start-up stage, scheduling visits, seeking input and recruiting volunteers.
Recently, Winfrey met Nadine and Chuck Palmer, who usually eat at the Mission's Lighthouse Diner. Each day, there is a cross section of people for the mission's noon meal. Some come for food, some for camaraderie.
"You can't figure out all of someone's needs from a phone call," said Winfrey after arranging to visit the Palmers in their small home several blocks from the mission. Nadine Palmer was in the doorway waiting when Winfrey arrived.
Sitting in the living room of the small house, the conversation ranged from food, activities and medications to others in the neighborhood who might need help.
"We keep the heat set at 63. That might sound cool, but you get used to it. We can pull out that extra heater," said Chuck Palmer, 77. "We have no house payments, no car payments. If we did, we couldn't make it. We run out of money before the end of the month."
They live on Social Security from his job as a truck driver and her job as a hospital nurse. They try to stay physically active and play in a musical ensemble called Charlie's Angels that performs in area nursing homes.
"But we're not really angels," Chuck Palmer said.
Nadine Palmer, 75, said their kitchen is too small for a stove and oven, so they eat their noon meal at the mission and use a hot plate and microwave to heat supper. They often get clothing from the mission's Benevolence Center, 2919 W. Garden St.
Winfrey asked about other people in the neighborhood who might benefit from an outreach visit.
"There are a lot of people in this neighborhood who have to walk because they don't have a car. They have to walk even on days when it's too cold to walk," Chuck Palmer said.
His wife said, "A lot of people have trouble clearing snow from the sidewalks. Mowing the lawn is a problem for older folks. Laundry, ironing and cooking can be difficult."
Newell said, "When people seek help from the government, there are often requirements and hoops to jump through. The big difference with us is, we may not have all the answers, but we'll figure out how to help."
Winfrey's final stop of the morning on a recent Thursday was Gloria Cosgrove, 67, a resident at South Side Manor.
Cosgrove had worked as a nurse's aide until injuring her back. She's on disability and often calls her doctor's office and the mission office repeatedly over the course of a day.
"I just don't socialize with people. Held back for years. Don't know why," Cosgrove said.
At the end of the visit, Winfrey said she'd return soon.
"People become so needy. Gloria sometimes calls 10 times a day. Some of the people she calls become overwhelmed and tell her not to call again," Winfrey said, noting that loneliness is often one of the most pressing needs of people on the South Side.
Nadine Palmer said, "One of the important things about being old is that everyone needs the Lord. It's good to be able to ask for help."
Nearly every day, Chuck Palmer walks around the neighborhood picking up cans. He gives what he collects to the Peoria Area Blind People's Center. Nadine Palmer said sometimes the best way to help yourself is to help others.
Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.