Person of the Week
Whelan’s Volunteer ‘Drive’ Helps CDR
Keeping a schedule is no problem for Community Dining Room (CDR) volunteer delivery driver Leo Whelan, who drove trains for 40 years before retiring from the job nine years ago. The Branford resident began volunteering with CDR 15 years ago as a homebound meal delivery driver and was trained by the program’s founder, the late Betsy Klarman. (Photo courtesy of Leo Whelan )
When it comes to volunteering to drive meals to the homebound for Community Dining Room (CDR), you might say Leo Whelan is “driven” to help—and that he learned from the best: CDR Home Delivery founder Betsy Klarman, for whom the program was named, posthumously, in 2019.
“I give credit to Betsy Klarman who was pretty much the facilitator of the whole program, as far as home deliveries go,” says Leo, who has now been delivering for CDR for over 15 years. “She would ride with me if it was a new route, and show me where to go, and introduce me. She was super people.”
Klarman, who passed away in October 2018, created the program in 1997 to meet the nutritional needs of the home-bound population in Branford (the program has since grown to assist in North Branford, as well). In the program’s early years, Klarman covered all aspects of the job, including referrals, assessments. recruiting drivers, and even driving routes. Klarman stepped down as coordinator in 2015.
As a train engineer by trade, Leo brought some valuable transportation experience of his own to his volunteer work for CDR.
“I drove trains for 40 years,” says Leo, who wrapped up his career nine years ago as a driver with Metro North. He’d also engineered for Penn Central and Conrail before being acquired by Metro North.
“I enjoyed it. I was very happy my entire career,” says Leo, although he also admits he doesn’t miss being tied to train schedules.
“I threw my watch out when I retired,” he says, laughing.
Speaking of spare time, Leo started volunteering with CDR while still working as a train engineer.
“I had a job where I would finish up by 11 in the morning, so I was able to deliver for them,” he says. “People need the service, and you’ve gotta give back.”
He’s also one of CDR’s most reliable pinch-hitters, says CDR Volunteer Coordinator Marie Mordarski.
“Leo is the first one I’ll call to help out if there’s an open route,” she says.
CDR relies on a roster of volunteers for home delivery routes that carry meals out to homebound in Branford every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and also deliver to North Branford homebound every Wednesday.
Leo regularly delivers a route every Wednesday in Branford. Like all volunteer drivers, Leo lends his time and his vehicle to deliver a fresh, hot meal to seniors and others in need of homebound assistance, as well as another meal that’s packed up for them to heat up. For about five years now, he’s visited the homes of the same dozen or so folks on his route, every Wednesday, every week. Several years back, Leo’s volunteer work with CDR also helped to bring another stellar volunteer to the program, his wife, Deb.
“She cooks there two days a week,” he says.
CDR cooks fill a weekly schedule of offerings that include serving a hot lunch daily at CDR’s Branford location, 30 Harrison Avenue, seven days a week, as well as a Tuesday Kid’s Night meal and Wednesday and Friday take-out meals (hours and other details available atcommunitydiningroom.org or find @CommunityDiningRoom06405 on Facebook). All told, CDR serves more than 4,500 meals each month to those in need in communities stretching from East Haven to Old Saybrook.
Leo and Deb both grew up in East Haven, moving to Branford about 36 years ago. They attend St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Branford and volunteer with a program that, pre-COVID, provided friendly visits with homebound. Leo says he misses the contact with those he has visited in the past while volunteering with his church, and is looking forward to resuming the visits when they are ready to start up again.
“You visit with them, you play cards...it’s nice,” says Leo. “I’ve enjoyed it very much.”
Mordarski says Leo is a wonderful community volunteer who’s continuing volunteer work with CDR deserves recognition not only for his dedication, but because it may inspire others to sign on to assist with programs at CDR. Non-profit CDR relies heavily on community contributions to assist with its mission of serving the community with meal programs and resources providing for other basic human needs.
“He’s somebody that’s served for a long time at our organization, which also says a lot about this being a good place to volunteer,” she says, adding, “it also shows how not everybody who volunteers for CDR has to cook! There are other ways to help; like being a driver for us.”
People interested in volunteering with CDR are invited to join Mordarski at her next volunteer training session on Wednesday, Feb. 24 from 5 to 6 p.m. at CDR, 30 Harrison Avenue in Branford (face masks must be worn; social distancing guidelines will be followed). Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register. For details about CDR Home Delivery services, call 203-488-9750.