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Florida

Volunteers Help Meals on Wheels

Costly background checks dropped

State News FL: Meal on Wheels: Donna Jacobi

Donna Jacobi, right, and Bennie Jo Toth prepare deliveries for Meals on Wheels in Pensacola. — Photo by Jason Parkhurst

Two years ago, Donna Jacobi, M.D., persuaded several neighbors to donate time to deliver Meals on Wheels. But her efforts were thwarted a few weeks later when the Florida legislature passed a law requiring volunteers who work with older and other vulnerable people to undergo a time-consuming background check that cost about $45.

See also: Hunger in Paradise.

The Council on Aging of West Florida, which administers the Meals on Wheels program in the Panhandle, couldn't afford to pay for the background checks, "so volunteers had to put out their own money," said Jacobi, 58, a Pensacola geriatrician and AARP member. Three of her recruits backed out.

"The rule was very aggravating," she said. "One man who wanted to volunteer had top military security clearance, but he still had to be screened, and the approval took months."

Statewide, the 2010 mandate devastated Meals on Wheels efforts that depend heavily on volunteers.

"It cost us $20,000 for screenings for a mandate that was an unthought-through, unfunded, knee-jerk reaction," said Peggy Miller, executive director of Broward Meals on Wheels, which paid for 463 screenings but lost 100 volunteers who didn't want to be screened. "We deliver 3,500 meals a day [weekdays], and 90 percent of those are delivered by volunteers. We had to pay a company to bring the meals that would have been delivered by the volunteers we lost."

Margaret Lynn Duggar, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Florida Council on Aging, called the mandate a nightmare. "As you get older, pads on your fingers get worn down, so some fingerprint screenings weren't readable, and many [volunteers] had to go back and repeat them, which caused more delays," she said.

AARP Florida was among the advocacy groups that fought for two years to ease the requirements. In April, Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed a bill lifting the screenings for volunteers who have fewer than 20 hours of direct contact monthly with recipients. Less arduous background checks are still required, but they do not cost the volunteers any money. The simplified background check requires verification of employment history and a clean criminal record.

Next: Thousands on waiting list. »

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