What's curvy and yellow and helps out seniors?

Top Banana, other services reach out at mall

Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

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Staff photos by MEREDITH SOMERS
Charles County commissioners' President Candice Quinn Kelly, center, listens to Marise Robertson, left, the Charles County outreach specialist for Top Banana. Joining the two women for the St. Charles Towne Center Mall Presentation Day are Cooperative Ministry Program Manager Mildred Barnes, center right, and Jane Baldwin, outreach coordinator for the Senior Companion Program.

It started with a cup of joe.

Almost 20 years ago, Top Banana Executive Director Jean Guiffre stopped by her mother's house to spend some time with the elderly woman. When Guiffre asked if she had some coffee to brew while the two women chatted, her mother replied with the disheartening news that not only did she not have any coffee, but most of her shelves were bare.

"It was the shock of my life," Guiffre said. "There wasn't enough of anything to last the day. It wasn't because she didn't have the money; it was because she didn't want to be a burden on other people. I thought there must be so many people like this."

Shortly thereafter, Guiffre started the nonprofit grocery delivery service Top Banana. Based in Brandywine, Top Banana has a 660-square-mile service area, which includes Prince George's County, Washington, D.C., and large parts of Charles and Montgomery counties.

There are two full-time employees with the grocery delivery agency, but most of the work is handled by 15 part-time workers, Guiffre said. "Many are retired who want to do something good and get out of the house," Guiffre said. "The people we serve today are just like my mother."

Guiffre attended this past weekend's Presentation Day at the St. Charles Towne Center Mall. Joining the Top Banana booth were representatives from the Charles County Cooperative Ministry on Aging, the Senior Companion Program and several Charles County commissioners who came out to support the area charities.

"Seniors by no means should feel neglected as far as a getting a hot meal or having a friend is concerned," said Louis Knight, president of the Cooperative Ministry. "We're here to make sure you know you're not alone."

As Cooperative Ministry Program Manager Mildred Barnes explained, the weekend presentation was the first time the event was held at the mall.

"We're real excited about it. We've held grass roots meetings since September of this year to talk about what information we want to put up in order to give information to the senior population," Barnes said.

Bags stuffed with brochures and program plans were available for passersby. They were stuffed by the youth group members at Potomac Heights Baptist Church.

"The job folks do here is amazing," said Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D). "As large as the county is geographically it's not an easy task.

"We don't want to leave anybody behind this time of year, not only because it's the holidays but because it's cold and dark outside. We need to convince people that it's okay to ask for and accept help."

The Cooperative Ministry oversees the Meals on Wheels program and the Telephone Reassurance Program in Charles County.

Well-known around the nation, the Meals on Wheels delivery system brings hot meals to homebound seniors.

"Meals are just part of it," Knight said. "What we do is make sure those seniors are safe and show they have a contact, a friendly face."

Similarly the Telephone Reassurance Program puts older residents in contact with their peers. Sometimes it's a phone call, but often there are visits to kindle friendships and offer a supportive shoulder to lean on.

"Everyone needs companionship. Everyone needs to know someone cares about them," said commissioners' President Candice Quinn Kelly (D). "These kinds of programs are lifelines. They keep our seniors in their own homes for a longer time."

Kelly also was present for the event and said she, too, has been a part of experiencing friends and family members aging and their adjustments to everyday life.

Kelly's first job in Charles County was as a community organizer for Southern Maryland Area Self Help, or SMASH. She also served as the executive director for the Angel's Watch women's shelter and will be the commissioners' representative on social services committees.

"In these tight economic times there are limited resources," Kelly said. "That's why we want to support nonprofits so they can carry out their mission."

Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) said what he sees is an issue is making sure the many nonprofits and charitable organizations work as one. He also mentioned the VITAL, or Vision in Teamwork and Leadership, briefing and suggested looking at ways to focus on consolidating these services to ensure there are no more underserved areas or groups not getting "optimum affect" for their mission.

"I think in the last couple of years we've seen an increase in the need ..." Collins said.

Despite the county being one of the wealthiest in the country, there is still a need to help seniors.

Top Banana's mission is to ensure seniors in the area are getting fed.

When a senior calls the delivery service he is sent a packet of information along with a thick book of all of the items that can be ordered.

"I don't think a penny is wasted in the organization," Guiffre said. "The prices listed are what they were when the book was printed. We try not to print more than four or five times a year."

"We don't serve for convenience. We serve people who have had some kind of trauma — such as just getting home from the hospital — or who have lost the ability to drive," said Marise Robertson, the Charles County outreach specialist for Top Banana. She's also a member of the county's Area Council on Aging.

Guiffre said that from 2008 to 2009 there's been a 241 percent increase in the use of food stamps, and since 2008 there's been a 41 percent increase in Top Banana's services.

Jane Baldwin, outreach coordinator for the Senior Companion Program, was also on hand to promote her organization.

"I like to call it one of the best kept secrets in Southern Maryland," Baldwin said. "This program is designed to help low-income seniors … give back to the community and to raise their level of income by volunteering between 15 and 20 hours a week helping to be a companion for other seniors."

Baldwin said the program matches seniors with other elderly residents who share similar hobbies and personalities. Senior Companion is funded for 66 seniors in the tri-county area. There are about 63 seniors in the program today; more than half are Charles County residents.

"We want to keep seniors out of nursing homes as long as possible," Baldwin said, "and show them they are recognized and appreciated."

Baldwin chalked up the high number of enrollees in Charles County to the VanGO bus system. It's much easier for elderly residents to hop a shuttle from one stop to the next, she said.

Barbara Knuckles, a member of the Sisters at Heart Breast Cancer Survivor Group, came out to show her support for the three seniors programs with Sisters Coordinator Roberta Kiegliger.

"I think they do need [help]," Knuckles said of local seniors. "I think they are ashamed to maybe even ask. If they don't get out they're not going to make friends. I know a couple people who are really almost homebound, but I think they still want to be independent. I don't know if I would ask for help or not."


To find out more

Those interested in learning more about Meals on Wheels or the Telephone Reassurance Program can contact the Charles County Cooperative Ministry on Aging at 301-392-6325 or e-mail ccmealstr@comcast.net.

Top Banana Home Delivered Groceries can be reached by dialing 301-372 FOOD (3663) or going to www.topbananagroceries.org.

For more information on the Senior Companion Program call 410-535-0817.