For more than 36 years, Barry Coggins has served up food, and sometimes a song or two, to lift-up and nourish older adults in his home communities of Dallas and Nashville. That’s approximately 13,000 meals! Coggins doesn’t know a stranger. As a longtime ally and advocate for others, a friend of the singer/songwriter said, “giving is Barry’s middle name.” Learn more about this man with a heart of gold.
Q. How long have you been delivering meals to older adults and why?
I started 36 years ago in Dallas, Texas. I was playing music, and I had my days free, and I just got a voice in my head that said, “Why don’t you try to volunteer for something?” There was a thing on Channel 4, the local television show, called the Volunteer Connection, and I called them up, and one thing led to another, and I started delivering Meals on Wheels, I think for the Y [YMCA]; … I get it from my mother, God rest her soul. I’m one of four boys, and we were Southern, and … food was important, so I felt the calling to deliver meals. And it was nice; it was once a week, and had friends go with me. And then once you get started, it’s very rewarding.
Q. How many of those years were delivering in Nashville? How about before you came to Music City?
Well, I moved to Nashville in 1992, so I would say seven years in Dallas. It was called the Visiting Nurses Association, and they were sort of the mothership; and they would make all the meals and send them out to the different churches in drop-off points. We would deliver 20 to 25 meals per delivery day. We had two ice chests; one was hot meals, and one was a beverage and a piece of fruit or something. And it took about two and a half to three hours to deliver all over Dallas.That depends from person to person, but yes, you do; over time, you get to know them, and it can do anything from bringing in the mail, to changing the light bulb. What you can expect is to grow to know the people and like them. On their birthday, you might sing them Happy Birthday. By and large, the visit is as important as the meal.
Q. Delivering meals is a way to provide nutrition to others but it is so much more isn’t it (for you and for them)? You become friends with those you to whom you deliver… tell us about this.
Definitely. For some of the people that we’ve delivered to for over six [or] seven years, [we are] definitely part of the family. And when they pass away, you go to their funeral, and you get to know [them] … Ellen passed on, but her granddaughter is a friend now. And so, we remember Ellen whenever I see her; her name is Shelly … she’s like family, she’s like an extended family [member.]
… [Ellen] was a singer … she was mostly blind … a hilarious storytelling person, kind of raw country humor a little bit. Her music was Christian, bluegrass, [and] gospel. One day, we were in there, and she and her two daughters just stood up and started singing this acapella three-part harmony. It just blew us all away, to the point where I’d do a show at Crieve Hall, called Fall in the Hall; and I asked them to come sing, and they did! I actually have a recording of the three of them singing their gospel stuff. It’s really quite remarkable. When we went to the funeral, they kept [calling her], “Sister, Ellen. Sister Willis.” She was a great singer. They loved her.
Q. Tell us about the series of events tied to FiftyForward Fresh Meals that helps raise awareness and funds while engaging more than 50 or your friends and neighbors in the community.
Well, it started with the golf tournament in 2000, I believe, and it evolved into the Writers’ Night at Douglas Corner, and then the Barry-oke on the Friday night before the golf tournament. So it was Thursday night, Writer’s Night, Friday night, Barry-oke, and then the golf tournament on Saturday. FiftyForward has been great, doing most of the work on getting the goody bags, manning the sign-in table, coming in to speak, and bringing the banners. And so that’s how it started; and we’re doing it again this year. This will be the 22nd year.
Q. As a Nashville singer-songwriter does some of your community service play into your songwriting?
I think so. We kind of have a faith, hope, and love sort of goal. So, it’s just an extension of delivering meals. You write songs to give people hope and accentuate the positive. We have a song called “If You Can Walk, You Can Dance” and “It’s Not the Years in Your Life that Matter Most, It’s the Life in Your Years.” People seem to respond to those songs. We have a new one called “Why Stop Dreaming When You Wake Up.” People like that one, too.
Q. What would you tell others about volunteering like this?
I don’t find myself talking about it a lot; just sort of trying to … What’s that expression? The tallest kind of preaching is a good example. So, I don’t. Sometimes, when I’m at the checkout stand at the grocery store, even though I have reusable bags, sometimes I’ll get the plastic bags, and I’ll tell the checker that we take these to recycle through Meals on Wheels. And somebody might be in the line and hear that; so that’s one place where I kind of go ahead and say something, call attention to the program.
Learn more about how a life well-lived as a volunteer can be rewarding and live true to the adage: “It is in giving that we receive.” Give a listen to the podcast and see where it may lead.