LITTLETON — In a time of need, a Northeast Kingdom business owner and slate of Littleton area volunteers are stepping up.
On Thursday morning, Mark Baxter, owner of Creative Counters, a wholesale countertop maker in Lyndonville, and Vermont Solid Surface in St. Johnsbury, made his second trip in the span of a month to the New Hampshire Food Bank in Manchester.
In two company box trucks and with fellow driver and employee Jeff Talburt, they returned to the Littleton Area Senior Center with 8 1/2 tons of shelf-stable food to be delivered to seniors across Grafton County and to the nine North Country communities served by the LASC.
Because of lingering uncertainty as to when stay-at-home orders will expire and when seniors who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 will again feel comfortable venturing out of their homes, he could be called on again to help with a future shipment.
And he’s more than willing.
“It’s definitely important,” Baxter said outside the LASC, shortly after his trucks pulled up with what was the largest-ever single shipment of food to date to the Littleton senior center. “It’s an opportunity to help the community.”
Baxter was recommended for the effort by Gary Cochran, assistant manager at Lowe’s Home Improvement, in Littleton, and a good friend of Barton’s, when it was determined the first big shipment would be coming to Littleton and delivery trucks were needed.
The first transport Baxter offered his trucks for was in April, when six tons of food was delivered to the LASC, which is one of eight seniors centers in Grafton County managed by the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council.
“This takes up a whole day,” said Carole Zangla, associate director for GCSCC programs, who applauded Baxter for his time and generosity. “And he’s up and running again at his business — that speaks to tremendous community support.”
Baxter has had his businesses going for two decades, and between the both of them, employs 38 people.
Although back to work since the phased reopening from the pandemic, business is still slower than normal, and such hours can be used to help others, said Baxter.
“We want to stay busy, and if there’s a chance for us to help somebody out in these crazy times, we want to,” said Baxter.
The shelf-stable food delivered included peanut butter, jelly, soups, canned vegetables, pasta, shelf-stable milk, muffins, and, now that it’s getting warm out, bottled water.
“It’s an extraordinary shipment,” said Bob Muh, of Littleton, new president of the GCSCC and a longtime LASC volunteer
The trucks were met by Muh, seven officers from the Littleton Police Department, area residents, and others that included Chad Stearns, representing the Littleton Rotary Club, and Andy Smith, of Peabody and Smith Realty.
Muh called the officers who turned out, more than expected, “a windfall for the effort.”
Wearing protective masks, all of the volunteers squandered no time unloading the food packed in boxes and bringing it into the senior center, finishing up in about 20 minutes.
The senior center has also been the recipient of eggs from Pete and Gerry’s Organics in Monroe and bread from King Arthur Flour, said Muh.
For non-food items, toilet paper deliveries are also a regular part of the effort, and Zangla said laundry detergent that the center had previously been unable to get is now a recent part of the deliveries mix.
Volunteer drivers in GCSCC buses and personal vehicles are taking food and items all over Grafton County, where senior centers — the LASC before the pandemic provided a daily luncheon that many depended on — remain closed.
“Buses and SUVs are crisscrossing the county,” said Muh.
Locally, deliveries are made once week to LASC seniors in the service towns of Bethlehem, Easton, Franconia, Landaff, Lisbon, Littleton, Lyman, Monroe and Sugar Hill.
After rising in the early weeks of the pandemic, the number of seniors presently being served by the LASC is about 200, said Robin Kristoff, executive director of the LASC.
“They are receiving five frozen meals once a week and we are supplementing that with eggs [every other week] and bread [once a week],” she said.
Frozen meals became the mainstay after the hot meals that had been delivered through the Meals on Wheels program was suspended during the pandemic, and delivery days per week reduced.
As senior centers remain closed and seniors stay at home, possibly for weeks or months to come, more big food deliveries might be needed for the foreseeable future.
“We will try to make this happen as often as we can to serve the community,” said Zangla. “We don’t know how long the stay-at-home orders will be in place or when seniors will feel comfortable going out of their homes.”
Because of that, the GCSCC will be looking at long-term partners for the effort, she said.
Creative ideas are also being explored, such having a food pantry in the senior center parking lot and using GCSCC buses as mobile food pantries, said Zangla.
And as summer kicks into gear, donations of a new kind are also welcome.
“We’re currently delivering a week’s worth of frozen meals, but the weather is hot and keeping them cool has become an issue,” said Zangla. “The routes aren’t just five minutes out back.”
Some routes, such as to Lisbon, can take more than an hour, said Kristoff.
“It’s logistically getting more difficult to keep temperature control” she said.
To solve that problem, donations are cooling blankets, large coolers or anything that can keep cold a meal en route to someone in need are being accepted, said Zangla.
Among those currently supplying the bags to bag the food for delivery to senior-clients are Lowe’s, Dollar General, and Price Chopper in Lincoln.
Deliveries serve another purpose beyond food — they also act as a welfare check and give volunteers, who also check in with seniors daily through phone calls, to see firsthand if the elder residents need anything, such as an air conditioner as it gets hot out, or another item for their home.
“It’s one way to keep tabs on our vulnerable citizens,” said Zangla.
And those citizens have been appreciative beyond words.
“Some are on the verge of tears, saying thank you,” she said. “That makes it all worthwhile.”