PROJECT ANGEL HEART CELEBRATES THREE DECADES of serving up food, compassion and much more.
THE DENVER-BASED NONPROFIT that provides medically tailored meals to Coloradans facing life-threatening illness is celebrating its 30th year of selfless acts of kindness. Every week since 1991, Project Angel Heart’s professional chefs, volunteers and registered dietitian and nutritionist have prepared delicious meals from scratch, tailored to meet the individual medical and dietary needs of those who are ill, free of charge. The first delivery ever made was a humble lasagna provided to 12 people in Denver living with HIV/AIDS. Since then, the organization has expanded its services to provide people with all types of life-threatening health conditions including cancer, kidney disease and most recently, COVID-19. And earlier this year, it delivered its 8 millionth meal and expanded its service area to Boulder and Weld County. To celebrate these accomplishments, we sat down with President and CEO Owen Ryan, who shared his passion for giving and supporting our community.
Tell me about the mission of Project Angel Heart and why that mission is as important today as it was 30 years ago.
Our mission at Project Angel Heart is to improve the health and well-being of people with life-threatening illnesses by preparing and delivering medically tailored meals and promoting the power of food as medicine. We know that severe illness takes a toll on individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities. We believe that all people, regardless of their background or circumstances, should have access to meals that improve their health and well-being and that cost should not be a barrier to proper nutrition. Project Angel Heart helps alleviate the stress and uncertainty that surrounds severe illness by creating and delivering medically tailored meals–at no cost to any of our clients–with compassion and care.
Thirty years ago, Project Angel Heart provided comfort, hope, and health to people dying from one of the worst pandemics of our lives: HIV/ AIDS. Since then, Project Angel Heart has grown to serve more than 8 million meals to thousands of Coloradans, coping with many different types of critical illnesses including cancer, heart failure, kidney disease and COVID-19. Today, as we confront another pandemic, the founding spirit of neighbors helping neighbors in times of need remains at the heart of our work.
How did you get into the nonprofit public health sector?
My parents made giving back a big part of growing up. My five brothers have all spent years in public service and my parents, in their 80s, still help with a local toy drive every Christmas. My father is the longest serving volunteer first aid responder in my hometown. He’s been doing it for more than 60 years. So, you could say it’s in my genes. Still, the experience that turned this from an interest into a passion for me was my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi in the early 2000s, when HIV was ravaging Southern Africa.
It seems that what Project Angel Heart does goes way beyond making and delivering food. What makes this organization so successful and so vital to our community?
We’re successful in the community because we are the community. Tens of thousands of Coloradans have volunteered to help their neighbors in need and just last year, more than 6,000 people gave almost 70,000 hours 68 november 2021 // AvidLifestyle
to get meals from our kitchen to our clients’ front doors. We started in a small kitchen at St. Barnabas Church on Capitol Hill and now we serve over 1,000 square miles across metro Denver, Boulder, Weld and El Paso counties. “We” are all of those volunteers and supporters who make that happen. Our staff of 42 people could never pull that off by ourselves.
The reason those volunteers come back week after week is because they witness the impact on their neighbors. When you deliver meals for Project Angel Heart, you see that they are going to people in need in your own community– people you wouldn’t otherwise know were facing such difficulties.
The saying “you are what you eat” fosters a belief that food is indeed medicine. So how does Project Angel Heart accomplish this for each specific person, and what are the long-term outcomes of this belief?
Our professional chefs and registered dietitian create meals from scratch, designing them to the very specific medical and dietary needs of those we serve. Each of our meals can be tailored 15 different ways to ensure clients are getting food they enjoy that is also good for them.
The results? Improved health and well-being for those in need. Independent research demonstrated that our meals reduce clients’ healthcare costs, keep them out of the hospital, and reduce their stress and anxiety. And, most importantly, it’s easier for them to live independently in their homes.
How has the pandemic impacted the organization and the people you serve?
The COVID-19 pandemic presented us with one of the biggest challenges we have ever faced. Our clients’ health conditions mean they are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, they could not leave their homes or interact with others because of their increased risk of infection and death. We needed to marshal additional resources to meet growing pandemic-related demand for our services in the community, at a time when tighter budgets made finding donations and other sources of support more difficult.
Fortunately, we were able to maintain and even expand our services during the pandemic. At one point, we were delivering more than 15,000 meals a week across the Denver metro area without missing a delivery. Since March 2020, we’ve served more meals to more people than ever before.
We also knew we had a bigger role to play in our community. Working with the City of Denver and State of Colorado, we hosted a 15-week vaccine equity clinic which helped vaccinate nearly 2,000 neighbors and severely ill clients against COVID-19.
Today, we know that more people need our meals and we’re doing all we can to increase access and availability to all Coloradans no matter where they live.
How has this job impacted you on a personal level?
The last year has been tough, but any personal difficulties I’ve had don’t come close to what our clients have faced. I’m not saying that to be falsely humble. The last 18 months have underlined for me the huge difference between people with financial and emotional support systems and those without. I’m lucky to have people in my life I can turn to when I need help. I’m very grateful for that.
What are the goals for Project Angel Heart in 2022?
My vision for Project Angel Heart is to see that every Coloradan who is battling a life-threatening illness has easy access to our nutritious, medically tailored meals. The process of realizing that vision is already underway; we are currently laying the groundwork to expand the organization’s footprint beyond the Denver metro area, to other parts of Colorado. In fact, we just expanded to Boulder and Weld counties last month. Currently Project Angel Heart services 30 percent of the state’s counties. Our long-term goal is to make that 100 percent. In the next year we plan to serve over 600,000 meals on our way to eventually reaching over 1,000,000 meals a year.
With the holiday season upon us, do you offer community events or ways for recipients to celebrate together?
The holidays are the best time to come and volunteer with Project Angel Heart. So many community groups and offices come by and volunteer together. We always need help packaging and delivering meals. Anyone interested can reach out to us.
You can also support our work by participating in “Pie in the Sky”. For every thirty dollar donation, you can receive an apple or pecan pie baked in our Denver kitchen or have the full donation go directly to providing meals. If you’re feeling competitive, we organize pie teams to see who can be the top pie seller. It’s a lot of fun so I’d encourage anyone to join.
What’s the best way for people to personally impact the mission of Project Angel Heart?
The two best ways to help improve the lives of Project Angel Heart clients is to support meals or help deliver them.
If you’d like to support our meals, December 7th is Colorado Gives Day which is a big moment for us each year. Each donation qualifies us to receive matching funds from community donors which allows dollars to go much further.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Serving neighbors in need is a task that requires all of us to get involved. We can’t do it alone– the support and engagement of donors and volunteers is greatly appreciated and necessary!
If you’d like to help dish up, package or deliver meals, we would love to have you join us. I promise it will be a highlight to this season of Thanksgiving!
Project Angel Heart