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Heart of gold

Perham volunteer, age 93, keeps on giving

Joyce Koelln of Perham has delivered meals for the community’s Meals on Wheels program for more than 20 years, and at 93, she’s showing no signs of slowing down.

She also assists with meals once a week at a local nursing home and volunteers at her church, Dent Methodist.

Since Joyce never learned to drive, her friends and family help out by driving her to and from her volunteer activities. Her niece, Jane Damlo, volunteered to take Joyce on her Meals on Wheels rounds. And Joyce is quick to point out that she’s also not afraid to walk when the weather is good.

“If I had been sitting around all these years, I probably would’ve been gone by now,” she says. “I think it keeps me going. And I enjoy it.”

Joyce was born and raised on her family’s farm near Vergas. She recalls stories her parents told her about her early years. They liked attending “old time dances” and during the winter, would bundle the family up for a trip in the horse-drawn sleigh to the dance. Her parents would make a bed for her behind the orchestra, where she’d sleep as they enjoyed fellowship with their neighbors.

She attended and graduated from Pelican Rapids High School. It was an interesting and great adventure that many kids today wouldn’t even think of, she said. Joyce and another Vergas girl stayed with a Pelican Rapids family that took in schoolchildren from other communities. The two girls would attend classes Monday through Friday, and on the weekends, their parents would carpool, taking the girls home and returning them for school on Sunday night.

After she graduated, Joyce married her husband, Erbin, and they purchased a farm near Dent. Their lifetime plans for the place were dashed when Erbin suffered a heart attack at age 49. When doctors told him he couldn’t lift heavy objects, the couple decided to move to Perham.

Joyce was learning to drive during that time, taking the car out for a few spins in their farm fields. Due to their move, she gave up her driving plans and focused on their new life in town.

She decided she’d get a job and contacted the Perham Hospital. The next day she got word that she’d been hired. Joyce worked in the kitchen for the next 28 years. She worked “on the line” and prepared desserts and juices.

Joyce started to retire when she was 63 by working a couple of days a week while drawing social security. Ten years later, when the couple moved into an apartment, she fully retired from her regular work schedule. The hospital, however, asked for her help. The kitchen prepared meals for the Meals on Wheels program, and they needed people to deliver them. She agreed to be among the volunteers.

There are around 5,000 senior nutrition programs in the United States that provide well over 1 million meals to seniors each day, according to the Meals on Wheels website. While some programs serve meals at locations, like senior centers, some programs deliver directly to seniors’ homes where mobility is limited, like the Meals On Wheels program in Perham. Many programs offer both services.

“I always holler when I deliver the meals,” she said. “I make sure they are around so they will go out and eat it. Sometimes when I deliver the meals, they start talking. I have been around for so long, they are used to me and start a conversation.” And the meals are delicious, Joyce says. Bread, salad, dessert and a drink accompany vegetables, potatoes and meat. Sometimes there’s soup, and some days the meal includes lasagna.

When she returns from the meal deliveries, Joyce eats the meal at the cafeteria. It’s delicious, she said.

Joyce was honored for her volunteer work in 2012 with the District C Volunteer of the Year Award from the Aging Services of Minnesota. Joyce, however, didn’t attend the Twin Cities ceremony to receive her award. She’d lost Erbin five years earlier, and early in 2012, the couple’s only child, Dale, died. It was a difficult time.

“It was something I never thought I’d get over,” she said.

Later, in the spring, the awards celebration came to her. Friends, family and members of the community honored Joyce for her work at a special ceremony at the town’s golf course.

She hasn’t sought accolades for her efforts. Joyce simply has wanted to help others in whatever way she could.

“I never think of what I do as being something really big,” she said. “Until I got this award, I didn’t think I was doing something big. It was something that I just wanted to do.”

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