It started with one pan of donated lasagna.
Project Angel Heart started in Denver in 1991, when Charles Robbins decided he had to help friends struggling with HIV/AIDS. That pan of lasagna fed 12 people. Eventually, the nonprofit's mission grew to encompass people with any serious illness; eight years ago, it expanded to Colorado Springs.
In 2012, PAH delivered 445,581 free meals to 1,950 clients in Denver and Colorado Springs. More than 8,800 volunteers gave 57,000 hours to prepare food, drive tens of thousands of miles to deliver meals, help in the office, and assist with fundraisers.
The Colorado Springs program, which is on track to deliver more than 70,000 meals to 300 clients this year, has grown to the point at which a regional manager, Sue Ager, was hired in August to oversee the 50-plus volunteers.
"I have retirees, I have some former clients, I have families that deliver together because it's a volunteer opportunity that children can participate in, and parents can teach about giving back to the community," she says in the nonprofit's office near downtown.
It's all good
Here's how it works:
Potential clients are, in general, homebound with one or more life-threatening illnesses that limit their mobility. They fill out an application, available on the PAH website or by calling 800/381-5612, or can be referred by a healthcare provider or case manager/social worker. Local referring agencies include the Southern Colorado AIDS Project and Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care.
The five-page form, which must include a medical professional's verification, asks about applicants' nutritional needs, allergies and any other difficulties. For instance, people unable to cut their food because of rheumatoid arthritis will receive diced or puréed meals.
"On our application, we ask income, but it doesn't matter what your income is, you are treated the same as anybody else," Ager says. "Some grantors we work with want that demographic information, so we ask it, but it doesn't affect whether or not you receive meals."
The application also asks about race and insurance status for the same reason. Age is not a factor, either. "Our youngest client is 5, our oldest client is 102," she says.
Led by executive chef Jon Emanuel, chefs and volunteers prepare the meals in a state-of-the-art kitchen in Denver. Ager has tasted various meals and says they're delicious while still serving the clients' needs.
"If you're dealing with cancer, chemo, radiation, you will likely be on what is called our 'skinny diet' with minimal spices, because that won't taste good with what you're going through," she explains. "I think that's one of the things that really sets Project Angel Heart apart, that focus on 'What can we do to improve the quality of life, but also to support treatment with good nutrition and healthy food?'"
Selections include coconut curry beef for the "regular" diet, baked salmon for the renal/diabetic diet, and tofu shepherd's pie for vegetarians. Free meals are also reserved for dependents and caregivers.
With the fixins
The meals are put into plastic trays, then shrink-wrapped and flash-frozen. Every Thursday, five two-serving entrées (they also do their best to include "sides of soup, bread, and a small dessert or two") are packed in bags labeled with each client's name and dietary needs. On Fridays, Colorado Springs meals are trucked to Care and Share's facility near Constitution Avenue and North Powers Boulevard, where they're kept cold until Ager and a few volunteers arrive Saturday morning. Half the meals are taken to a downtown church, where eight volunteers pick them up for delivery to eight to 12 clients each; another eight drivers pick up their payloads at Care and Share.
When Ager goes out on deliveries, she receives immediate payback.
"I love to see the smiles on clients' faces when we hand them a bag filled with things to eat. Just imagine not feeling well and probably, [if] left to your own devices, you would be tired enough, sick enough that you might not even venture into the kitchen to cook. And if all you have to do is microwave it, then it's a whole lot easier. We like to say, 'a meal with heart gives hope.'"
Some of that heart comes from the groups and individuals who decorate the bags and make cards for clients' birthdays.
"It's really fun as we start to pull the trays out of the freezer each Saturday morning and see the bags," Ager says. "Some clients recycle them back the next week when we deliver to them. But there are others who actually thumbtack them up on the wall because they're beautiful. And we have clients who decorate bags for others, paying it forward."
PAH depends on donors and grants for every morsel it gives away. According to Ager, $25 pays for five meals, including the containers.
Her wish list is topped by a commercial chest freezer, in good condition, so she can keep meals at the office for pickup by clients or relatives/caregivers who weren't available on a Saturday.
"I know that we are providing a service that is really critical in this community," she says. "We never want it to be a choice for people: 'I can afford medicine this week or I can afford food this week.' We want to take that off the table."