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East Texas agency seeks more bids on contract for feeding homebound seniors

One of the main funders of the region’s Meals on Wheels programs is seeking bids from additional organizations that can provide warm meals to seniors.

The East Texas Council of Governments-Area Agency on Aging announced last week it has expanded opportunities for new vendors to become involved in the senior nutrition program.

This is the program funded through the federal Older Americans Act that provides homebound seniors with daily lunchtime meals. The program is aimed at people over age 60 with low incomes who can’t leave their homes without assistance.

For years, Meals on Wheels East Texas, which goes by the legal name Meals on Wheels Ministry Inc., has contracted with the Area Agency on Aging to provide meals in Smith, Gregg, Henderson, Upshur, Van Zandt, and Wood counties.

A separate organization, Meals on Wheels of Palestine, contracts with the agency to provide meals in Anderson, Cherokee and Rusk counties. The East Texas Council of Governments then provides home-delivered meals in Camp, Harrison, Marion, Rains and Panola counties.

“We’re operating it in these areas, in these counties, by waiver from the state because we can’t find subcontractors who want to be involved in the program,” David Cleveland, the executive director of the East Texas Council of Governments, said in an interview.

Cleveland, who has been with the agency for 12 years, said vendors in the program have come and gone rapidly over the years. When he first started, there had been four or five different providers, and that number fell to two.

In May, Longview Community Ministries announced it would spin off the services it had been providing to Meals on Wheels East Texas for decades and instead work with Newgate Mission on a service called “Meals With Love.”

“It has been a revolving door, and so this is an attempt to change the momentum in the other direction,” Cleveland said. “And the latest situation with Meals on Wheels of Tyler, that’s an unfortunate coincidence in my view. The issue is the bigger picture.”

The agency has arranged a public meeting for anyone interested in bidding at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the ETCOG offices, 3800 Stone Road in Kilgore. Cleveland said he is personally inviting people to attend. As of Monday afternoon, 14 different organizations had responded.

The request for proposals asks for traditional providers of the senior nutrition program as well as emergency providers, whom the agency would call upon to provide meals temporarily in the event any of the traditional providers stop operating, temporarily or permanently.

“The emergency provider is something where we’ve been in the situation multiple times and needed some extra help, so where we’ve been picking up that slack, we’d like to get some other alternative,” said Lindsay Vanderbilt, the spokeswoman for ETCOG.

Vanderbilt said the agency issues the request for proposals for the program every three years, and this one is being timed to pick up when current contracts expire at the end of September. What’s new is that there are now more options to become involved.

“We know that there are missions and churches and other people out there that have a heart for these things, and we’re just trying to pull those folks in and see if they can be involved,” Vanderbilt said.

Cleveland said his staff had intended to get the request for proposals out six or eight weeks ago, but was crafting it to attract more responses. He said the increased participation also creates an opportunity to highlight the importance of the senior nutrition program.

“The objective of the program of helping to ensure that our seniors remain engaged and plugged in to their own home and their own community and independent as long as possible,” Cleveland said. “That’s why we have the program. It helps them maintain their independence.”

He added: “Part of the beauty of the senior nutrition program in East Texas is we want to maintain a human contact. When that volunteer shows up to deliver their meal, one of the key objectives is to have physical contact with that senior, let them know we care about you.”

John Moore, who was announced June 14 as the new executive director of Meals on Wheels East Texas, said in an interview the organization will bid on the contract. He replaced Kari Kietzer, whose yearlong tenure as CEO involved complaints about finance and administration.

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Theater camp helps children grow in confidence, creativity

From a third-row seat in the Tyler Civic Theatre, Michael McLeod watches a group of students on stage.

He likes what he sees.

“You guys are doing great,” he calls out as he looks up from a script.

The young actors are about halfway through a three-week camp during which they are rehearsing and will perform “Shrek the Musical Jr.”

The 22 enrolled in the camp range from students in elementary to high school grades. Some have no experience and others already have been in plays for years.

This was the first day the actors in the Summer Theatre Arts Review rehearsed in the space in which they will perform. They needed time to get used to the new surroundings.

“Listen up. Look at me,” calls out McLeod, the director, as he goes over where they need to enter and exit the theater.

McLeod, who has acted and has worked for decades with groups to stage plays, said camp is all about what he calls the Big Three: fun, learning and putting on a good show.

“You want them to have fun,” he said. “After all, this is summer camp. ... Some are hardcore (theater) people and others are just getting into it. I want everybody to have fun.”

Children are naturally creative, he said. “If you leave a kid alone in a room with a piece of string, they will find a way to make (it) into a game.”

His challenge is finding ways to bring their creativity out within theater.

“I’ll ask them to show me what they are thinking about their character,” he said. “If it’s working, I let them do it.”

Becky Clayton, the education coordinator at the Tyler Civic Theatre, said summer camp and the theater’s other acting workshops are about helping youths become more confident.

“A lot of them lack of confidence,” she said. “I’ve seen it when they would not get on stage and then their confidence blossoms and they can’t wait to go on.”

She said the civic theater wants acting camp to be a safe place where youths take chances and make friends.

Twelve-year-old Fabiola Caraballo, a student at Moore Middle School, plays Donkey, Shrek’s wisecracking sidekick. She has attended theater camps for years.

“It (acting) expands my personality,” she said. “I’m always the crazy one, so Donkey and I have a lot of things in common.”

At age 11, Abigail Ourso is also a veteran of theater camps. She has acted since she was about 6. She is one of the Three Little Pigs in this production.

“Everyone is so positive,” she said. “Every time I come (to camp) I make a bigger and bigger family of friends.”

She said she takes acting “super serious.”

“This is where I belong,” she said.

As the rehearsal continued, there was a moment when the children all seemed to talk at once.

“Let’s not get crazy,” McLeod said calmly.

Moments of chaos are not always a bad thing, he said after rehearsal.

“It means they’re coming out of their shell and having fun and you want that to happen.”