"In an environment that can often be chaotic with many volunteers and demanding diners, April is a sea of calm. If a diner has a meltdown or a volunteer fails to show up as scheduled, April rolls with the punches."—Jessica Morris, Director of Human Resources, Meals on Wheels People Inc.
"So, would you want to dress these salads?" April Woods asks before I've even stepped into the kitchen. "Let me grab an apron for you. I think with a ladle you can get two salads done. And don't forget gloves."
Woods is the backbone of the Meals on Wheels' Cherry Blossom Center kitchen, located in the Hazelwood neighborhood. Daily, Woods preps nearly 300 hot meals for delivery to homebound seniors, then cooks another 100 lunches for dining room visitors.
"Today we have two entrees," she says, as she dumps a large bag of frozen vegetable medley into a steamer basket. "Baked fish and a Chinese chicken salad. These vegetables will be done in about 15 minutes."
She directs volunteers who wash dishes and plate food, working with both regulars and first-time helpers, depending on the day. Some days, only one volunteer can make it. How does the kitchen operate on those days?
"Fast," Woods says, smiling. "We go fast."
Woods, 34, admits to a certain disdain for previous basement line cook jobs she's held in Portland. Moving to Meals on Wheels allowed her love for cooking to flourish, while filling her desire for more regular hours. When she leaves her kitchen, Woods just keeps cooking. She and her partner have five children between the ages of three and 18.
"Some days by the time I get home," she says with a short laugh, "I want to say, 'you cook the meal!'" Mornings at the community center start at 8 am, with hot meals out the door by 10:30. Then, dining room prep begins. Country music usually streams from the radio. By 11:15, the dining room—tiled floor, cream walls and big windows—sets the backdrop for low income 65-and-over clients, who seat themselves at long cafeteria-style tables.
Mandarin speakers make up a large portion of Cherry Blossom's client base, and Woods is learning the language so she can better communicate with those she serves. Some of her regular volunteers also speak Mandarin.
"It's hard! [The volunteers] told me I was going to give up," she says, while sliding marinated chicken onto beds of fresh greens next to four slices of orange.
As service is about to begin, a short, round-faced man with wispy white hair walks up to the counter pointing to the back of the kitchen, then his wrist.
"Dinner's on soon," she responds, trying to interpret his needs. He shakes his head no, and gestures like he has a mug in his hand. "Ohhh, you need coffee?" she asks. "Brewing more, it'll be done soon." He nods, and the "kitchen dance," as Woods calls it, is complete. She effortlessly slides a heavy a tub of rice into the warmer and laughs. "Now I need to learn Russian, too."
And she probably will. Woods' commitment to the comfort of her dining room clients is paramount, and it shows.
"Some of these people are really hungry," she says. "They need us."
Wednesday is food box day. Clients show up as early as 7 am to receive pantry items delivered to the center by the Oregon Food Bank. Most of the patrons stay for lunch. On box days, Woods typically serves more than 100. Wednesday afternoons she also leads a teen cooking class through the community center.
"I feel like I've helped—and also relieved that we got it all done." Woods says. "It's a good feeling that people are fed and they don't have to go home hungry."
BOTTOM LINE FOR PORTLAND
April Woods prepares 300 meals daily for hungry, low-income seniors 65 and over, including hot meals that are delivered across the metro area and also directs more than 15 volunteers monthly.
April Woods' prize is generously sponsored by Borders Perrin Norrander.