I Just Always Liked Working With Volunteers

March 7, 2017

Some businesses are lucky enough to have one - that person who’s a walking, talking company history book.  Someone who knows the personalities, peaks and valleys, character and culture of the place, and played a vital role in shaping that character and culture.  For decades, Suellen Mills was that person at Meals on Wheels Central Texas.  Suellen retired January 31st after more than 42 years on the job.  She will be missed.

She started working here in the early 1970’s.  Back then, Meals on Wheels used church kitchens to cook food for our homebound clients.  Suellen spent her time at the St. Julia’s Catholic Church site.  “I supervised the preparation of the meals and the volunteers picking up the meals and delivering them,” she recalls. Her duties also involved lots of grocery shopping. “I had to look at what was coming up on the menu (for client meals) and figure out what food I needed and go and pick it up and bring it back and unload it,” says Suellen. 

Eventually, she settled in at the job she would hold for more than 30 years: recruiting, recognizing, and retaining our wonderful volunteers.  “I just always liked working with volunteers. It’s just amazing to me that we can get so many great people to come in and share their lives with our clients,” she explains.  Under her watch, the number of people donating their time to our cause grew from dozens to thousands.  She had a front row seat as our agency evolved from a grassroots effort to one of the largest non-profits in Central Texas.  “It’s incredible,” she says of the changes she witnessed.  

In the late 1990’s though, Suellen’s professional life and personal life collided.  Her husband, Mike, who was a psychiatric social worker, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  He was 59.  When the disease forced him to stop working, Suellen brought him to Meals on Wheels.  “So, Mike hung out here.  He’d walk around and everybody knew he was here and kept an eye on him.  Everybody really liked him and he was kind of a jokester,” she says.  Seeing Mike around the office planted a seed among the management team here.  They realized East Austin lacked free respite care for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  When MOWCTX moved into a new building in 2008, the agency finally had enough space to create its own program which Suellen would help run. But what would it be called?  President/CEO Dan Pruett thought of the perfect name, Mike’s Place.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday, caregivers bring their loved ones to Mike’s Place.  Participants are each paired with a caring, attentive volunteer - their friend for the next several hours.  There’s singing, dancing, fun games, a little bit of exercise, a healthy meal - and up until recently, Suellen was right in the middle of all that.  It was a labor of love for her.  Although Mike passed away in 2012, his legacy lives on at the program that bears his name. 

When Suellen found out not long ago she needed to have foot surgery, she made a decision. “I’m going to have some recovery time for that and I just thought that maybe this is a good time,” she says of her retirement.  She then adds “I do hope to come back as a volunteer.”  All of us at MOWCTX certainly hope so too, Suellen!