In this file photo from May of 2016, employees prepare meals for the Orange Community Action Association office in downtown Orange. Also known as Meals on Wheels, the program provides approximately 300 meals daily to senior citizens across the county. The program is facing a difficult future with increasing expenses, reduced funding and automotive needs. File photo by Tommy Mann Jr.

Tommy Mann Jr. – For The Record

Linda Hughes was fighting back tears after addressing commissioners court Tuesday afternoon and she worries about the future of a program she has helped guide for the past three decades.

Hughes is the director of the Orange Community Action Association, which is often referred to as the Meals on Wheels program because the agency transports as many as 300 meals per day to its clients around Orange County. She attended Tuesday’s meeting of the Orange County Commissioners Court in an attempt to garner support and, potentially, much needed funding.

“I’ve never come to ask (commissioners court) for help, but we are having financial trouble,” Hughes said. “These seniors will continue to get their meals, but, if things don’t improve, it will not be from (Orange Community Action Association) but from a different agency.”

Although OCAA delivers as many as 300 meals per day, it serves approximately 385 meals per day, five-days-per week. Of the meals not delivered to home-based clients, meals are taken to locations in Orange, as well as Optimist Village in Pinehurst, and locations in Bridge City and Little Cypress.

Hughes said OCAA has sustained funding cuts, including grant reductions, which are taking a toll on agency’s financial well-being.

“Our vehicle repair bill and insurance costs in June were outrageous,” she said of the $20,000 spent to maintain vehicles. “We have 10 vehicles, but are only using nine because one has been parked because it is in such bad shape. The newest vehicle we have is a 2009 model and we do not have the finances to buy a new vehicle.”

OCAA lost several vehicles to theft and vandalism following Hurricane Rita in 2005, and several more to Hurricane Ike’s devastating storm surge in 2008. Although insurance helped the agency acquire new vehicles, the impact is still felt in higher premiums for insurance.

In a previous interview with Hughes, she said Orange Community Action Association is budgeted to serve meals 260 days per year, so any extra funds acquired through grants, such as the $2,500 grant from the Foundation of Southeast Texas in May, are used to maintain the current quality of items purchased in groceries each month.

Along with Hughes, the Orange Community Action Association is staffed by 18 full-time and part-time employees. Many of those same employees help run routes, including Hughes, to make sure clients receive their meals each day.

“I think some of these seniors would starve to death if we didn’t bring them something to eat each day,” Hughes said as she fought back tears. “I could take you to some places that it would just break your heart. This isn’t a passion for me, it’s an addiction. It’s like a driving force. I have to help.”

Hughes said cutting back on meals or reducing the number of clients served is not an option. Even though the OCAA is understaffed and lacks new vehicles, it is the employees who might eventually suffer.

“We could lose employees if things don’t improve,” Hughes explained. “That would be a terrible thing to lose them. I’ve got some devoted employees for the amount of effort they put in.”

Hughes said if the OCAA ever did have to stop serving meals, then a similar agency in Jefferson County would most likely be the one to continue the program.

Cynthia Nagle, the senior administrator at Optimist Village in Pinehurst, said having the Jefferson County meal program may not be a bad thing, but it would not provide the security to her or the clients of the OCAA.

“If the Jefferson County program ever had to starting making cutbacks, where do you think they are going to look first?” she asked. “If they cannot serve all of their clients, they will start by cutting Orange County and look after their own first.”

The Orange Community Action Association not only provides meals to its clients several days each week, but it also provides transportation to senior citizens are no longer afforded the luxury of driving. For $1 per ride, the OCAA will transport seniors within the immediate local area so they can go shopping, make doctors appointments and various other errands.

Hughes plans on requesting her topic be placed on a future agenda of Orange County Commissioners Court as she attempts to garner support and assistance.

“We have been considering all of the options we can,” she said. “We apply for grants, but some grants require county funding as well. Some similar organizations use volunteers and we could definitely use volunteers too.

The Meals on Wheels program delivers meals to senior citizens ages 65 and older and to those who are disabled. It also provides meals for those who are age 60 and older who eat at one of the food location stations such as the OCAA office and the one at Optimist Village, among others.

“We are having trouble providing for those we serve now, but I do not want any of our senior citizens to get panicked because they will get there meals,” Hughes added. “We just don’t want to lose this program. It would be a shame to lose it after 50 years.”

The Orange Community Action Assocation is located at 123 S. Fifth St. in downtown Orange, inside the City of Orange Senior Center.