HARLEM — Firefighters and staff from Citymeals-on-Wheels didn't know what to expect Tuesday as they delivered a Christmas meal and gifts to Roxana Dawson at the Lenox Terrace apartment complex at 133rd Street and Lenox Avenue.
"She said she had no one and was very quiet at first," said Beth Shapiro, executive director of Citymeals-on-Wheels.
And then the group started talking to Dawson, who is blind, and found out that she's actually 109 and not 108, as they originally thought. By looking at her smooth skin, you couldn't tell she was a day over 88, her visitors said.
Dawson became boisterous and started laughing and telling stories. She had worked as a teacher and had been around the world twice, she said.
"She was so happy to have us visit," said Daniel Glover, a firefighter with Harlem Engine 80.
Dawson is just one of the 18,000 elderly and frail people for whom Citymeals-on-Wheels provides weekend, holiday and emergency meals. The group delivers 2 million meals over the course of the year. Over the next two days they will prepare and deliver 23,000 meals.
Dawson received a meal box complete with a holiday meal, cards from local school kids, a poinsettia, and even an FDNY T-shirt and smoke detector.
"You could see her spirits lifting while we were there. She invited us to come back at anytime," said Glover.
Sixty percent of meal recipients are over the age of 80, 23 percent are over age 90 and 73 percent live alone, Citymeals said. All have chronic diseases associated with old age such as blindness, arthritis and heart disease. About 40 percent no longer leave their homes.
Shapiro said recipients like Dawson "are the reason we do what we do." The group also made deliveries to a 92-year-old and a 84-year-old in the same building.
"We provide meals for people who could not get by without us," she added.
While donations are down slightly, 1,000 new meal recipients were added this holiday season alone.
"Even in your 80s people have outlived spouses, friends, family and even their children," said Shapiro. "The need is here and growing because elderly people are the fastest growing population in the city."
For Glover, who is used to helping people, this was different.
"Usually, when we come to people's doors it's for a bad emergency," he said. "It's good to come out and do something good, but in another way."