Before taking the helm at Senior Citizens Inc.’s kitchen 21 years ago, Shana Houston served as a certified nursing assistant for the nonprofit organization. She made home visits to area seniors, helping with baths, medications, and tending to their needs — sometimes just lending an ear to fill the loneliness.
“They love to tell you about their lives and their families,” says Houston. “I realized so many people didn’t have family or anyone checking up on them. Their simple needs in life weren’t being met.”
Now 53, the mother of seven grown children oversees a kitchen staff of eight, who cook upwards of 1,800 health-conscious meals a day. Prior to the shutdown, many seniors would be served meals at City of Savannah community centers. With the need to socially distance, those meals are delivered by volunteers through SCI’s Meals on Wheels program.
How did your job change because of the shutdown?
Our numbers picked up and we had to come up with a concept to get single trays delivered house to house. We created distance areas in the kitchen, we wear masks and gloves and disposable aprons. Everything, every surface is sanitized multiple times, from lighting fixtures to floors.
Were you ever scared to come into work? If so, what were you most scared of?
No. I was a little nervous for some of my kitchen staff because of their age and [health] condition, because I have seniors — one 67, another in her 60s, and another employee undergoing cancer treatment. We are like family. One has been here 15 years, another 12. We know about each other, kids, husbands.
Has serving helped you?
This job is so rewarding. I think … how many people would not have eaten had we not made their meals. The delivery people, they get to see [the seniors], and they can have conversations with them. My job is so rewarding. When I’m at my lowest point I always think about the people we’re helping. I feel like I am one of the lucky ones who get to do this.
How has people’s behavior changed for the better or worse during the shutdown?
I think it’s bringing a closeness out. I find more people want to reach out and help. People want to donate — masks, funds, blankets — without you even asking. They are going out of their way to be of help. The volunteers are still volunteering, and more people are showing up to do that – whatever is needed. I’m just seeing that a lot more people seem to appreciate the work that we do. When this is over with, don’t forget what you did while this was taking place. Continue to give. Continue to serve. Do the best with what you can.
If you could give our decision-makers a piece of advice, what would it be?
I remember this particular time when we were delivering meals as Stillwell Towers. I had visited a woman on Friday, and when I returned on Monday, she was dead. She was in the same place where I left her. No one was there to see her or make a phone call from Friday to Monday. So, I would say, please be aware of our seniors when you are making decisions. I always tell my kitchen staff, “If this meal is not good enough to go to your grandmother or grandfather or your auntie who took care of you when you were growing up, then don’t serve it.” If you put [people] first, you’ll make better decisions.
What experience from this time will you carry with you?
The Zoom meetings. I think we’re all going to have to get good at the technology.
What is something you miss from before the shutdown?
What I miss the most is seeing my volunteers. They would come back to the kitchen and tell us about the seniors, who enjoyed their meal, who was sick, if someone had passed on. We have one volunteer we call “Sunshine” — she’s always an uplifting spirit.
What has the shutdown taught you about what is most essential?
Really just the needs of life — food, shelter, clothing, family. I think everyone is realizing that these are the most important things in life.