Bonnie Pooley, left, hands the dessert Sunday for the Sunday Chefs meal to Marilyn Dupuis at the Sudbury Village in Bethel. Pooley has taken on the lion’s share of delivering the meals to seniors in the program, and functions as a liaison between the Sunday Chefs and the recipients. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

BETHEL — Back in March, when residents of Maine began living under newly instituted restrictions on social gatherings driven by the coronavirus pandemic, two newcomers to the Bethel area, with the assistance of many others from town, came up with a plan to prepare and deliver home-cooked meals to seniors who live alone.

While Jim Klesitz and his husband, James Caplinger, known informally as the “Sunday Chefs,” have been responsible for cooking the meals each week since March, the program has blossomed over nine months thanks to donations from community members.

Klesitz said he and Caplinger moved to Bryant Pond four years ago. Since then, they had not met many others in the area.

That all changed once the coronavirus began carving its way through Maine.

“When COVID first hit, I was looking to help in any way I could,” Klesitz said.

Klesitz said he worked in 2008 in senior property management and had taken on a property that had a senior meal program.

“It was very rare for most (Housing and Urban Development) properties to have a meal program like that,” Klesitz said. “When I first got there, the staff was taking frozen food, reheating it and serving it. I told them: ‘No, no. The food has to bee cooked from scratch.’ During my time there, I got them transitioned to making fresh food.”

In search of a way to help, Klesitz began asking around to see if there was way he could help by cooking food for people in need in the Bethel area.

One of Klesitz’s neighbors directed him to Bonnie Pooley, a retired Gould Academy English teacher and member of the Local Food Connection in Bethel.

Pooley said that during the early days of the pandemic, she and the other members of the Local Food Connection were looking to connect people in need with access to food.

“At first, we were doing soup meals at church,” she said, “but due to state restrictions, we couldn’t do that all of a sudden.”

The Local Food Connection, according to Pooley, is a nonprofit organization that encourages community members to grow, prepare, serve, purchase and consume local foods, and is one of several food councils across the state that make up the Maine Network of Community Food Councils.

Pooley said Klesitz called her and said he loves to cook, and wanted to prepare meals for seniors in the area to “keep them out of the grocery stores as much as possible.”

From there, Pooley, Klesitz and Caplinger hatched a plan to cook meals and deliver them to seniors every Sunday.

Every week, Klesitz said he and his husband cook and prepare the meals, while other Bethel residents help by preparing desserts.

Jim Klesitz, left, and his husband, James Caplinger, are the Sunday Chefs, preparing meals for seniors in the Bethel area. The two are shown Sunday in front of their house in Woodstock. The program, funded primarily by donations from community members, has been growing every week. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The food varies from week to week, though Klesitz said most weeks, he makes soup at the beginning of the week and puts it in the freezer until Sunday.

On Sunday morning, Pooley picks up the food and begins making the rounds, delivering food to more than 40 seniors in the area.

At first, Pooley would deliver meals to seniors at Sudbury Village, a 48-unit affordable housing complex in Bethel, and the Bethel House on Main Street.

Over time, Pooley said, she and the Sunday Chefs realized there were seniors outside of subsidized housing who were living alone and needed help.

“There are some people I’ve delivered food to who are in their 90s, and they live alone and take care of themselves,” Pooley said. “For a lot of these people, when I show up to deliver them their meals, it’s the only time during the week that they’re having any social interaction. It’s a big part of their day.”

Klesitz said the past nine months of cooking and delivering would not have been possible without the donations and assistance of many community members.

“When we first started this, it was myself and my husband paying for all the meals,” Klesitz said. “As it grew, Bonnie said, ‘We have to figure out some kind of funding.’”

As word spread of what Klesitz, Caplinger and Pooley were doing, the donations started rolling in. Sometimes, it was monetary donations in the form of cash or checks. Other times, the donations came in the form of desserts or other food.

“Every week, we have different people making desserts to go along with the meals,” Klesitz said. “Some weeks, we have people donating pork or chicken, or containers to deliver the food in. This is truly a community effort.”

While Pooley delivers meals to about 44 seniors, on average, each week, Klesitz said some weeks are greater than others.

“Today, we had 154 meals out for delivery,” Klesitz said. “We’re always coordinating with folks in the community to make sure we have enough for everybody.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge throughout Maine, with no signs of slowing, Klesitz said he and his husband are “in it for the long haul.”

“It has been amazing to see the community come together and help out,” Klesitz said. “We figured this would continue into the summer of 2021, so we’re ready to keep helping.”

As for Pooley, she said even if the pandemic stretches well into 2021, she and the Sunday Chefs will continue cooking and delivering for the seniors in their community.

“We’ll get through this together,” Pooley said, “and we will continue to serve this community for as long as it takes.”

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