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Exchange-Groceries for Seniors,

Help At Your Door operations manager Shawn Nilsson delivers groceries to 91-year-old Betty Allen at her home in Wayzata, Minn.

WAYZATA, Minn. | Betty Allen, 91, has vivid memories of what it took to put food on the table during the Great Depression.

She grew up in a farming family with eight brothers and one sister in central Mississippi. When the cotton fields were too wet to work, her dad would shoot rabbit. Her mom would fry it up and make a big pot of gravy.

"When I'm really hungry here, and get kind of down sometimes, I'll just make a plate of gravy and biscuits," said Allen. "Boy, they should put that on the medicine list."

These days, Allen lives in senior housing in Wayzata, where she's known by neighbors for her cooking — especially gravy.

Every Monday, the ingredients for her meals arrive at her apartment door in a bright green crate.

The groceries are delivered courtesy of a nonprofit group called Help At Your Door. Their mission is to help seniors live independently as long as possible. It's the sort of service that may be increasingly in demand as the state's population ages.

Grocery delivery day is an event for residents of Allen's building. As soon as they see the bright green van pull up, Allen says people grab their walkers and head up to their apartments to wait for the deliveries.

"They treat us like we had just paid $100 for that box of groceries," Allen said of the delivery drivers. "They're hot and perspiring, and yet they take the time to make it good for us. It's like a friend coming in."

About 1,300 clients each week give Help At Your Door grocery lists or request other services. Some pay for the groceries outright, while others receive products from food banks. Payment depends on what the client can afford.

For many relying on Help At Your Door, it's not only about food, but companionship, too.

Allen left Mississippi for California as a young woman. She married a salesman, and traveled the country with him. After her husband died of cancer, she moved to Minnesota with her son, a Vietnam War veteran named John. He died three months later from a kidney condition.

Allen felt like she had nothing left. But she made some very close friends who helped her get settled in a job at a gift shop. She wanted to stay on at the job even after she hurt her back at 84, but she jokes that her bosses thought she'd drive her mobility scooter too fast.

Now retired, Allen looks forward to visits each week from the delivery people of Help At Your Door. She's known for greeting them with a hug.

"John, the first driver, I just got to love that kid. He was like my son bringing me food, and he treated me like that," Allen said. "They're very, very nice people."

That personal connection is central to Help At Your Door's approach, said executive director Karen Cotch.

More than 80 percent of the group's clients live alone, according to their data. Many are older women. Staffers may be the only people to visit some of them on a regular basis. In some cases, staffers or volunteers are the ones to discover when they've fallen gravely ill or passed away.

"If you talk to any of our clients, they are very isolated," Cotch said. "They really appreciate someone coming by and giving some support, and doing it not out of charity but just out of, this is what we do — you care about your neighbor."

Help At Your Door has delivered groceries in the Twin Cities area for going on 35 years. But they also do chores like raking leaves, cleaning gutters or painting walls. They even give people rides to appointments or to run errands.

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"What we have done is really look at what can keep somebody independent in their home," Cotch said. "If somebody can no longer get around as much as before, but they have the need to stay where they are, we try to provide those supports."

Help At Your Door relies on 20 staff and more than 600 volunteers. A state filing shows they ran the operation on about $1 million last year, much of it raised from private donations.

The group sometimes refers clients to kindred organizations like Meals on Wheels. But Cotch sees the need for these sorts of services continuing to grow as the population gets older. The Minnesota State Demographic Center has predicted that by 2030, more than 1 in 4 adults in the state will be over 65.

While many people look for opportunities to volunteer or donate during the holidays, Cotch said elders need support all through the year.

"A lot of times, people want to help out, to bring gifts to somebody or to do something one time," Cotch said. "But what people really need is an ongoing relationship, something that can be easily done, volunteering, talking on the phone with somebody once a week."

Allen's apartment is stuffed with statues of birds people have given her. They're perched beneath her television and hanging in front of her window. She loves cardinals. Like those knickknacks, she said her weekly delivery of groceries is part of what makes her apartment a home.

Allen tries to give back, too.

"I just love living. I didn't like it, right when my son and husband first died. I just might have been about to go downhill if I hadn't met two great people," Allen said. "I kind of try and do that myself to people, or if I see somebody that seems kind of down."

As Allen took stock of her groceries recently, she was already planning. She had three squat cans of pink salmon piled on her countertop. That's enough to make sandwiches for her neighbors.

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