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Special assignment: 2 dozen Tucson police officers volunteering as meal delivery drivers for vulnerable adults
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Special assignment: 2 dozen Tucson police officers volunteering as meal delivery drivers for vulnerable adults

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Cases rise, judge rules that state can keep nursing home data from public series

Nearly two dozen Tucson police officers have taken on a special assignment, answering a call for volunteer drivers to deliver meals to vulnerable adults during the pandemic.

After losing 40% of its volunteer drivers — mostly older adults over the age of 65 who are self-isolating in an effort to stay healthy — Mobile Meals of Southern Arizona put out an emergency alert to assist vulnerable adults who cannot cook or shop for groceries, said Jennifer Tersigni, interim executive director of the agency.

UPDATES: Tucson area coronavirus developments, June 4: Here's what we know

Among those who signed on to help the nonprofit were 20 Tucson Police Department officers who are hitting the streets when they are off duty to deliver meals to ill, home-bound seniors on special diets.

The decision was easy for Lt. Michelle Pickrom, the department’s wellness coordinator, and Detective Mary Pekas of the adult sexual assault unit.

“I saw an opportunity to help where help is needed, and (the work) fits into my normal day off,” said Pekas.

She said there is an inherent fear that everyone feels because of the pandemic and the unknowns.

“But we are taking all the precautions,” said Pekas, who was wearing gloves and a face mask while she and Pickrom loaded up a dark-blue Mazda CX-5.

It was their first shift delivering hot meals to hungry, medically compromised parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, among others. The clients were telephoned prior to the officers’ arrival and the food was handed off at the door.

“It is a very strange time,” said Pickrom. “I compare it to working in the twilight zone. ... There are some who are more at-risk than others, and then on top of that you have a pandemic.

“I am an able body, and I am able to help out. We are considered first responders and we are still working. There are cops who try to be of assistance outside of their normal role,” Pickrom explained, mentioning that there is concern and worry for their own families because “we don’t know what we come into contact with, but we are taking precautions.”

She said officers are still signing up to volunteer as word has spread about the need.

“People sign up to be a cop to help, but in law enforcement we don’t always get to help people unless something traumatic or devastating happens,” said Pekas.

“In volunteering for this work, we are not dealing with jail or people breaking the law. We are helping people because they need food. We are able to fill people’s basic needs.”

The detective said she learned empathy at a young age from her mother, Julia Peaks, a retired hospice nurse.

“She helped people in dire situations who were alone in their homes. They needed someone to comfort them and be sympathetic,” said Pekas.

Margo Susco, the department’s community engagement coordinator, said once she heard about the agency’s need for drivers she knew off-duty officers could fill the void quickly, since they already met background and fingerprint checks required of volunteers. The only thing left to do was for the officers to attend the agency’s orientation session.

“We owe it to our seniors to step up and care for them,” said Susco.

Mobile Meals of Southern Arizona delivers hot meals prepared at hospital and health-care facilities’ kitchens to 260 clients daily during the week and annually serves up to 1,000 people, resulting in about 120,000 meals a year, Tersigni said.

On weekends, clients cover their own meals. However, during the pandemic, a two-week supply of food meeting each clients’ dietary needs has been delivered once and more are expected to be delivered if needed.

The program’s budget is $750,000 a year.

However, budget needs are expected to grow and the agency has applied for government relief.

Since the emergency alert for drivers went out, 100 new volunteers, including officers, have come on board and are ready to deliver meals while other volunteers are undergoing background checks and training.

In the wake of COVID-19, more seniors are isolating at home and are unable to prepare their meals or shop for groceries because of mobility, health or transportation issues, said Tersigni.

Some older adults do not want strangers coming to their homes and have moved in with family, she said.

Other seniors cannot rely on family, friends or in-home service because of stay-home orders and are enrolling in meal deliveries.

“We want to extend a huge thanks to everyone in our community who has stepped up and helped or made a monetary contribution to mobile meals. We could not have done it without you,” Tersigni said.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at

cduarte@tucson.com or 573-4104.

On Twitter: @cduartestar

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