Friday, November 28, 2014

Departing meals on wheels leader: ‘I’ve learned a lot about people’

By ABBY ECKEL, Herald Staff Writer | 10/18/2013

When Nov. 11 rolls around, Sharon Geiss is not sure what she’s going to do with herself that Monday, she said.

After nearly 14 years as the executive director at Mid-America Nutrition Program, 1538 N. Industrial Ave., Ottawa, Geiss is expected to finish her more than decade-long run Nov. 8, she said.

When Nov. 11 rolls around, Sharon Geiss is not sure what she’s going to do with herself that Monday, she said.

After nearly 14 years as the executive director at Mid-America Nutrition Program, 1538 N. Industrial Ave., Ottawa, Geiss is expected to finish her more than decade-long run Nov. 8, she said.

“It’s going to be weird on Nov. 11 not having a place to get up and go to,” she said, laughing. “I’m going to help my husband with some things with his business, Take it Outside, and he’d like me to help with stuff on his website, so I’m going to try and learn some new tricks.”

Just because she won’t be “working” doesn’t mean she won’t be looking for work, she said.

“I don’t plan to retire,” Geiss said. “I’ll be seeking another position, but I’m not sure what yet.”

Having worked for the nonprofit for nearly 14 years, Geiss said she would like to become an advocate for seniors.

“A whole lot of our legislators don’t understand about how not-for-profits are funded, and that’s true here in Kansas,” she said. “I think there’s a certain idea with our legislators that these programs will always be here and that it doesn’t matter whether they increase the funding or not.”

Geiss said she’s seen how much senior citizens depend on Meals on Wheels, and losing the program would be devastating.

“If these programs were to go away or decrease the number of people served, there would be a huge problem keeping people in their own homes,” she said. “Then they’re going to be in nursing homes and that’s expensive and it’s not what people want.”

FACE OF MEALS ON WHEELS

Geiss said many people in the area know her as sort of the face for Meals on Wheels.

“Because it’s a small organization, I handle the public relations,” she said. “In my job doing public relations, I travel to all six counties we serve and Mid-America Nutrition manages 25 different senior centers across those counties, so I’m in there on a regular basis.”

She also attends the county commission meetings since a portion of Mid-America Nutrition’s funding comes from the counties it serves, she said.

“I attend those meetings and report back to the board so they know what’s going on with Mid-America Nutrition and Meals on Wheels on a regular basis,” she said. “For years, I’ve gone to those meetings so when people want to ask about Meals on Wheels or complain or ask about the senior centers, I’m the person that they know is involved with Mid-America Nutrition and I’m the person to talk to.”

One thing she helped to achieve during her time with the Meals on Wheels program — accreditation — wasn’t exactly easy, she said, but it shows seniors and families of seniors that they can count on the local facility to provide.

“I’ve been involved with the Meals on Wheels Association of America, and through that involvement we sought and received accreditation,” Geiss said. “The national association comes out and looks at your human resources, policies and procedures, your finances and how transparent you are. They look at the food and you have to be doing a nutritional analysis and their requirements are higher than what the state of Kansas requires so we’re holding ourselves voluntarily to a higher standard on the nutrition of our meals.”

UPS AND DOWNS

There’s good times and bad times in everything, Geiss said, and her work at Mid-America Nutrition has been no exception.

“Financially the last two years have been really difficult,” she said. “We actually haven’t had any cuts, but we haven’t had any increases [to the budget] and the costs — everyone recognizes food costs have gone up and gas has gone up and funding has not and so s the gap between the costs and the funding has gotten larger, meaning we have to do more fundraising, and that’s challenging.”

Cutbacks related to the sequester — a group of federal spending cuts that took effect in March — have forced many Meals on Wheels distributors, like the Mid-America Nutrition Program, to find new ways of funding, Geiss said previously.

“Unlike some of the other programs that feed people, senior nutrition was not exempted from sequestration,” she said. “The issue for Mid-America Nutrition is not so much as the change in funding due to sequestration, the issue with Mid-America Nutrition had been building over the years because federal and state funding has not kept track with inflation.”

Lacking funds, Mid-America Nutrition has had to cut back on serving seniors in rural areas, Geiss said, something no such agency ever wants to do.

“We had a referral for somebody east of Overbrook and we had to say, ‘No, we can’t deliver a meal there,’” she said in an earlier interview. “Our resources are stretched to the max, and we just can’t do that.”

Finding new ways of funding has been a challenge, she said, but the good times have outweighed the bad.

“I’ve learned a lot about people and a lot of our employees are... elderly,” she said. “It’s been interesting to see those who embrace change and how that affects their lives in a positive way and those who resist change and that affects them in a negative way.”

Over time, one person in particular — the former Ottawa Senior Center director — made a personal impact on her, Geiss said.

“We have site managers and years ago we got computers at our sites,” she said. “Florene Hart was among the first to say ‘Yeah, I want a computer.’ Florene wasn’t young when it happened, but she embraced that and whenever other changes came around, she just was able to roll with that. She’s not old, and yet chronologically she’s what most would consider old, but she has a young way about her and that’s how I want to be when I grow up.”

A NEW VISION

As much as she would like to stick around to see what’s next for Mid-American Nutrition, it’s just time to go, she said.

“We have a tremendous staff that are very capable and put out a very good meal,” she said. “Because of that staff, and while there are challenges in the area of financial, it’s a very sound organization and it’s got a good, sturdy foundation for someone to take it to the next level. I guess that’s in part why I’m leaving — I don’t have a vision for what’s next.”

She’s not sure who will come after her, Geiss said, but she has some advice for whomever fills her role.

“Take care of the existing staff,” she said. “Give yourself time to learn the ropes and cultivate your board of directors.”

Mid-America Nutrition won’t just be losing an employee, they’ll be gaining a new one with a fresh perspective, she said.

“I’ve peaked out,” she said. “I guess you could say I’m tired and ready for somebody else to come in with some new and different ideas ... and I think this is the right thing for me.”

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