Meet Deb Koski

Senior Executive Director of Operations, Sanford Health Foundation

In early 2000, when Deb Koski and her co-workers at the Sioux Empire United Way were encouraged to volunteer with one of the agencies that the organization funded, most turned to mentoring programs for kids – but Deb had something different in mind.  

“I’ve always had a heart for older people. I was very close to my grandparents growing up and just always admired them and that generation,” she says.

She and one of her co-workers at the time, Coleen Thompson, signed up to volunteer together with the Meals on Wheels program coordinated by Active Generations, a local nonprofit organization working to promote positive aging for adults.

Their first delivery day dawned cold and icy in January. The pair shadowed a current volunteer, and as they watched him slip and slide up to each door, they did wonder what they’d gotten themselves into. But they stayed committed to volunteering – for their next shift and even until now, 20 years later.

“I started because a boss wanted me to, but I continued because it’s very fulfilling, and it really has taught me so much about helping others, aging gratefully and the importance of human connection,” Deb says.

Coleen is now retired, but she still delivers with Deb every week. They work well together as a team, with one person driving while the other gets out to drop off the meals.

As regular volunteers, the pair are familiar faces for many meal recipients and sometimes even their family members.

“They expect us every Monday, so they get to know us on a personal level,” Deb says. “They call us their Monday girls.”

Volunteering together also helps when the pair occasionally encounters an emergency situation. “We had a client who had a stroke, and that was probably the scariest one,” Deb says. 

“We had a client who had a stroke, and that was probably the scariest one,” Deb says. “We could hear her crying out for help, so we called 911. She somehow crawled to unlock the door. We got her something to drink and were talking to her. She was probably 85 years old, and she thought her mom was downstairs. It was heart-wrenching, but at least we were there until the true first responders arrived.”

Whether it’s a life-threatening situation or a more gradual change in circumstances, it’s part of their responsibilities as volunteers to report anything unusual.

“It’s not just about delivering the meal. Part of our mission is to do a well check,” Deb says. “We don’t leave meals at the door. We knock and wait for every person to come get their meal, so we can lay eyes on them and make sure they’re OK.”

Some Meals on Wheels clients don’t have family close by, making it tough for their loved ones to physically lay eyes on them every day.

“Knowing someone from Meals on Wheels is doing that gives them comfort,” Deb explains. “I feel good knowing we’re keeping somebody in their home longer. Most people want to live in their homes as long as they can. Meals on Wheels allows for that because they’re getting a well-balanced meal and their families know they’re getting a check-in every day.”

Over the years, Deb has been inspired by some of the meal recipients who have set a positive example for her and others.

“We’ve had the privilege of delivering to two different clients who were over 100 years old and still living in their own homes. One lady in particular, we called her ‘delightful Dorothy’ because she was so positive. She always had her clip-on earrings in and her lipstick on. She woke up with a purpose – that she was going to make the most of every day. It really has had an impact on me and proves that attitude is everything,” Deb says.

That’s a lesson that’s been especially helpful this year in the face of a lot of uncertainty.

“After all they’ve done and contributed to society, I think seniors deserve to be treated with dignity,” Deb says. “And I hope that’s what I provide to them in addition to their meal – a smile, a few kind words and my sincere respect.”