WELD COUNTY — Lee Athmann says the Thursday senior luncheon served each and every week for nearly a year now — a program he helped bring to Carbon Valley through countless volunteer hours and effort — has a stringent policy of fun.
“It’s all strictly eating, talking, laughing and having a good time,” he said on a late Thursday morning at the Carbon Valley Recreation Center in Frederick. In the background, about 40 seniors in attendance started in on the first part of that agenda by sharing wry jokes and warm greetings, while volunteers prepared to serve hot chicken sandwiches and healthy sides to the group of rambunctious retirees.
It’s clear they’re having a blast, and it’s all thanks to Athmann, who saw what he felt was a need in the senior community and brought the more than 40-year-old county program to the old folks of Frederick, Firestone and Dacono.
Athmann said it all started in February 2013 with a brochure from Meredith Skoglund, of the Weld County Area Agency on Aging, which had information about a senior lunch program in Mead. Athmann’s assistant, self-proclaimed professional volunteer Lana Stillwell, said the trip to Mead gave Athmann a tasty idea.
“He found the lunch to be nutritious and delicious, and being the altruistic person he is, wanted the program for the seniors in his local community,” Stillwell said. “And did he ever jump through hoops to make it happen.”
“A need to feed”
Agency-sponsored lunch programs like the 20-plus held each week within the county — similar programs are also sponsored near Carbon Valley in Fort Lupton and further north, in Platteville — require more than just a few volunteers who know how to throw together some sandwiches and a macaroni salad.
Athmann’s first challenge was finding a host site. And since senior programs in the area fall under the auspices of the Carbon Valley Recreation District, the center on Frederick Way soon became the most sensible solution.
Even then, the Rec Center had to foot the bill on renovations, including a commercial dishwasher, so the program could be compliant with county and state food handling regulations.
The extra work didn’t deter Athmann, who continued to keep seniors’ best interests in mind.
“I felt in my heart a need to feed less fortunate seniors outside of the Senior Center,” he said. “And now it’s turned into a passion of mine to get people down here, to get them out of their house.”
And feed them he did. About six months later, on Sept. 5, 2013, the first lunch was served. More than 1,100 hot and nutritious meals — and many more smiles — have been served up since by Athmann and about a dozen regular volunteers.
Some like it hot
Meals for the luncheons are cooked at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and then shipped — piping hot — to their destination in Carbon Valley or wherever the lunches are going that day. There they’re available for the nice price of a $3 suggested dontation, but Athmann said they won’t turn away anybody who can’t pay.
Both Athmann and Skoglund said the meals fill a nutritional need many seniors tend to neglect as they get older and less inclined to cook for themselves.
“It’s about reeducating them on nutrition,” Skoglund said.
But that’s not all it’s about.
Aside from filling bellies, the lunch fills a social need for many seniors who are hungry for camaraderie and may have a hard time finding it as it becomes more difficult to get out of the house regularly to see friends.
“That’s the whole purpose of this,” Skoglund said. “I mean, we have programs like Meals on Wheels for homebound seniors, but this is really about the congregation and socializing, as well as providing educational opportunities, as well as a nutritious meal.”
“It affords seniors an opportunity to make new friends and provides a regular location to meet and socialize,” Stillwell added. “Often, this is very important as individuals age to remain healthy in body and spirit.”
John Hudziak, who was sharing a table with his wife, Frederick trustee Donna, and his friend Erik Valin, agreed.
“It’s a good meal, and you get to connect with your friends,” he added. “The county does a (great) job, and there are a lot of people where this is important so that they get a good meal.”
Serving up seconds
The Thursday affair has been such a success that Athmann said he and the other volunteers have their sights set on a second weekly event.
“We’re trying to start up a second lunch because this one’s been so successful,” Athmann said. “The county has kind of asked me if I can do a second one on Tuesdays and I’m working with the Rec District right now to see if we can get the room.”
In the meantime, Athmann is also trying to recruit new faces — not just from Carbon Valley but from all over southern Weld County.
“We’re trying to build the program and get more seniors involved,” he said. “A lot of these seniors are from the group across the street, but we’re trying to get other seniors, too — ones who don’t necessarily belong to that group.”
“We need to spread the word,” Stillwell added.
As for those local seniors living in Carbon Valley, Athmann and his chums are looking to add transportation, too, so as to help increase those numbers and make the program even more accessible.
Athmann’s vision doesn’t stop there.
“We’re going to outgrow this room some day and we’ve been looking at (the old Frederick library building),” Athmann said. “It’s been standing vacant for about six years now, so we’re trying to work with Weld County to see if they can let us use it somehow.”
A hero’s welcome
Athmann had barely cleaned his plate July 31 when he was surprised by a camera crew from local news station, Channel 7.
Unbeknownst to him, Stillwell had nominated Athmann for Channel 7’s “Everyday Hero” award.
The award is presented to people who make a difference in their community.
“Lee’s story” premiered at 10 p.m. Aug. 10 on Channel 7, and will air again Aug. 14, 16 and 17.
Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or firstname.lastname@example.org.