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Interview

God's Love We Deliver Celebrates 30 Years of Food as Medicine for New York's Neediest

May 6, 2015

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Karen Pearl (Credit: Janette Beckman)

Karen Pearl (Credit: Janette Beckman)

God's Love We Deliver has been delivering food to the doors of people living with HIV or other chronic illnesses in New York City for 30 years. The organization celebrated this milestone anniversary on May 1, 2015, and is renovating its main space to allow it to provide twice as many services as before.

God's Love We Delivery believes that nutritious food is not only medicine, it is also love and compassion. God's Love We Delivery CEO and President Karen Pearl sat down with me to discuss the organization's future, the importance of continued advocacy, why it delivers a cake to each client on his or her birthday and what Joan Rivers meant to the organization.

First of all, congratulations on 30 years of God's Love We Deliver.

Thank you very much. It's quite a milestone.

How long have you been with God's Love We Deliver?

Eight-and-a-half years. Through a lot of change in the organization; but also a lot of constancy. So we are always looking forward, and also holding onto the very important heritage that started our organization that's propelled us forever.

I love that a lot of people recognize the role that God's Love We Deliver has played, especially in New York City, in the care of people living with HIV. But in the last 15 years, in the last half-history of God's Love We Deliver, you've expanded into taking care of people living with many different ailments. Is that correct?

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That's right. Today, we're serving people with HIV and AIDS, of course, and people with about 200 different diagnoses in addition to that. So, all the different kinds of cancers. We tend to talk about cancer as one disease, but it's actually many. Cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, COPD, advanced diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, end-stage renal failure -- and I could go on.

So we have people who are living with severe and/or chronic illness who simply are so sick that they can't shop or cook for themselves.

How does someone access your services? Are they usually referred to you by a doctor? Or can they sign up themselves?

First, we start with the premise -- and this has always been our guiding premise -- that no one should face the dual crisis of illness and hunger. And so we believe that if you need us, we're going to be there for you -- no bureaucracy, just get you food. If you call and say, "I'm hungry and I'm sick," we're going to get you food. Now, that's the first step.

So how does that first step happen? Lots of different ways. Still, remarkably, one of the best ways people find us is word of mouth: their neighbor, family, friend -- somebody -- says, "You need to call God's Love." We also get a lot of people who are referred to us from their medical treatment -- whether that's a doctor, or an advanced practice nurse, or a PA, or a social worker, discharge nurse, any kind of nurse -- anybody in the medical field.

They take that very brave step of saying, "I'm sick and I'm hungry, and I need your help," and we get them a meal.

What happens is, people call. They take that very brave step of saying, "I'm sick and I'm hungry, and I need your help," and we get them a meal. Then they have 10 days to get us a doctor's note that confirms that they have a diagnosis and tells us something about why they can't shop or cook for themselves.

And so there are all these activities of daily living. Doctors just have to check them off -- like they can't walk; they can't carry; they can't lift -- all the things when you think about what it means to go shopping, and what it means to stand and cook. When people can't do those things and they have problems with certain activities of daily living, then they're on our program. And they're on for six months and then a doctor or a medical professional has to recertify that they are still in need of our services.

When it comes to volunteers, I think there's more than a hundred-to-one ratio of volunteers to full-time staff. What are some of the many ways that volunteers help get the meal to a client -- from sourcing ingredients to the delivery? And how can someone become a volunteer?

First, just the sheer number: We use over 8,000 volunteers a year -- and that's individuals. Some will volunteer with us once a year, like with their company on a service day, or as a college student on their spring break. Some people do alternate spring break with us. Some will volunteer a few times a year. Some will volunteer every single week, week in, week out. So we are also very accommodating to people's schedules. We so appreciate the volunteer service and the dedication, and the donations of time. Because we use volunteers throughout our organization.

Many volunteers work in our kitchen. They chop. They sauce. They plate meals. They help our baker bake our brownies, birthday cakes, desserts. So they work in all different ways in the kitchen. The only thing they don't actually do in the kitchen is the cooking, because that is dangerous -- with all the hot ovens, hot pans, whatever. So, everything else but the cooking.

They work in what we call our meal packaging, our meal kitting process, where each individual client's meal gets packaged into a bag to make sure they get the right specific foods for their specific medical situations. They work on deliveries. They do walking deliveries; they go on our vans. So they help in delivery in lots of different ways.

Many volunteers work in our offices. They work in the nutrition department, client services, finance, doing all sorts of things. We have a volunteer in our HR department. All of our departments have, at various times in the year, really counted on volunteers to do specific work.

One of the things we guarantee is that you're never going to be bored. We take our volunteers' time very seriously and we make sure that they have really important work to do, if we're calling them in to help us. And so they come. And they're dedicated. And they come back. Even if they do a service day, they come back, year after year after year, doing their service day with us. And we're very excited by that.

We're 30 years old, and we have some volunteers who have been with us as long as over 20 years. Some 15, some 10 years. People really believe in what we do, and we're grateful for that.

You have this baker who's featured prominently on your site, Chuck "The Baker." How long has he been with God's Love We Deliver? How did the baking program start? And just what is the idea behind the Birthday Bake Sale?

Chuck Piekarski is his name. Chuck has been with us for almost 25 years. He got started way back when people were wasting with HIV, and what was most important was to do something that made people feel good, want to eat, and just be able to get in calories. Early on in our years, one of Chuck's major roles was making sure that people got some calories into them. Who doesn't like to look at a really delicious baked good?

Over time, as the needs of people with HIV and AIDS have changed, including their diets -- where now we're almost at the other side of that coin, where more and more people living with HIV are struggling with too much weight, and struggling with heart disease and all of the other diseases, diabetes, whatever, that come with aging (thank goodness they're aging, right? Living on treatment for 20, 25 years) -- Chuck has also changed what he bakes. He uses less sugar, more fresh fruits and all sorts of things. And everything continues to be incredibly delicious.

But the one thing Chuck does no matter what is he bakes a birthday cake for every one of our clients or, if they have children and on our program, for their kids, as well -- or senior caregivers with their seniors -- and he decorates it the same way that you or I go to a bakery and say, "Could you please make a cake for my friend's birthday? Say 'Happy Birthday, Mathew.'" So, if Mathew's on our program, the cake in Chuck's icing handwriting is "Happy Birthday, Mathew." It's decorated with roses. I mean, it's beautiful. It's like a perfect birthday cake that you get from a professional baker -- because Chuck is a professional baker. And he does this for everybody.

So, on their birthday, we deliver a birthday cake. Probably we get more thank-yous about that part of our program than anything else. People say, "Nobody recognizes my birthday. I haven't had a birthday in 10 years -- or ever." And every cake goes with a handmade birthday card, from somebody in the New York City Public Schools or private school system; as their service, they decorate cards, and wish our clients happy birthday.

We are doing a bake sale, somewhat in honor of our birthday, our 30th anniversary. For $10 people can buy a cake, or donate a cake to somebody on our program, and make somebody's day. It's really great when they feel good.

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