FARGO — Elaine Fiske of north Fargo was leaving the 50th anniversary party for Valley Senior Services on Wednesday, Sept. 1, at Rheault Farm in the Metro Senior Ride van to go have her hair done.

"I don't know what we would do without it," she said about the transportation service offered to senior citizens.

Fiske was also referring to the Meals on Wheels, senior meal sites and other services of Valley Senior Services.

She uses the ride service, which charges a minimal fee, to go to the Sons of Norway every Tuesday and for her hair appointments.

Fiske said her neighbor gives her a ride to church.

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"I don't really go a lot of places," she added. Although she owns a car, she said her son has the keys and the battery is dead in the vehicle.

Warren Swenson and his wife, Kathy, of south Fargo, were also at the celebration attended by about 200 people.

He said he frequents the senior meal site in south Fargo, and in addition to the "very good and nutritional food" he enjoys talking to all the people and learning about their various backgrounds.

"A lot of us have the same problems, the aches and pains, too," he said.

His wife said he has made a lot of friends at the meal site.

They have each other, Kathy Swenson added, but a lot of the seniors there are "lonely" and enjoy having a conversation with someone. Many join in activities such as playing cards.

Jan Baker, of south Fargo, picks up a meal occasionally and visits the meal sites where diners are asked to provide a donation.

She said it was especially helpful to have meal pickups during the COVID-19 pandemic's peak.

Brian Arett, who has been director of Valley Senior Services for 32 years and worked there 10 years prior, said the "overriding goal is to help senior citizens live independently as late in life as possible."

Since 1971, the organization that is part of the Fargo Park District has provided more than 10 million meals and 2 million rides.

Valley Senior Services serves seniors in six counties in southeast North Dakota and provides transportation services across the border to seniors in Moorhead and Dilworth, too.

Mayor Tim Mahoney, who addressed the crowd, said the partnership with the Park District is amazing, and it illustrates how they provide services to city residents from children to senior citizens.

The mayor said the service will continue to be needed as the city experiences a population boom with the biggest growing segments being younger people and senior citizens.

As the pandemic peaked, Arett said they had about a 15% increase in requests for meals.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Park Board Chairwoman Vicki Dawson said, Valley Senior Services "never missed a day of delivering meals."

The organization was originally part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society that brought Medicare and the Older Americans Act, Arett said. Former Park District Director Bob Johnson was instrumental in giving Valley Senior Services a two-year trial period, he added, as the organization was the first of its kind in North Dakota.

It never stopped operating, only growing.

Valley Senior Services served or delivered 21,254 meals that first year, and last year it grew to 322,316.

The budget has grown from $200,000 the first year to about $5 million, with about 30% coming from federal funds and 40% in state and county funds. Residents who pay minimal fees for rides and meals provide about 23% of the budget with 5% to 10% in grant money.

There are 120 employees, mostly part-time, but Arett said they could never operate without the help of so many volunteers who deliver meals and help in other ways.