Delivering God’s Love
On the Eve of the Non-Profit’s 3oth Anniversary, Karen Pearl, President and CEO of
God’s Love We Deliver, Explains Just How It’s Done
by Alina Oswald
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hirty years ago a hospice volunteer by the name of Ganga Stone was asked to deliver some groceries to a patient living with AIDS. She did. The following day she stopped by the man’s place again, only to find the bag of groceries untouched, still sitting on the counter. At that moment she had an epiphany. Stone realized that when people are too sick and weak to shop or cook for themselves, what they really need is not a bag of groceries, but a cooked meal, one that looks, smells and tastes appetizing, just like a meal their mother or grandmother would prepare. So, she took upon herself to help the man and bring him restaurant prepared meals, left over at the end of the day.
One day she was in the neighborhood when she met a minister. He’d seen her before, and asked what she was doing. To her answer, he replied, “you are not just delivering food…you’re delivering God’s love.” And that’s how God’s Love We Deliver, cofounded by Ganga Stone and Jane Best, got its name.
“So, from that single act of caring, and of respect and dignity for another person, evolved God’s Love,” Karen Pearl, President and CEO of God’s Love We Deliver, tells me over the phone. “Not only did we expand in terms of numbers and in terms of illnesses that we help people live with, but also we moved from restaurant [meals] to cooking our own meals, to our meals being nutritionally based and medically tailored for the specific circumstances of each client.”
God’s Love is unique in that way, and many other ways. Starting as an HIV/AIDS organization in 1985, today the organization, which is not faith-based, prepares and home delivers over 1.3 million meals per year—that is 5,000 meals a day—to clients located in the five boroughs of New York City, as well as in Hudson County and two other sites in Newark, New Jersey. Some twenty-eight percent of God’s Love clients, today, live with HIV/AIDS. Twenty-two percent of the clients have cancer, while eight percent live with other illnesses, from Alzheimer’s disease to MS, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heart failure.
Volunteers prepare the food with love, but, at God’s Love We Deliver, food is also medicine. Medicine, because it helps patients manage their medications, and their illnesses. When people call to say that they’re sick and hungry, God’s Love immediately delivers a meal to them. There’s no bureaucracy. No paperwork to fill out. “Because,” Pearl says, “we really believe that being sick and hungry is a crisis that demands an urgent response.” Within ten days after that first meal delivery, the prospective clients need to submit a form from their doctor, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, and that form is reviewed every six months. God’s Love We Deliver has six nutritionists on staff. It is their job to get all the necessary information from clients and their doctors, in order to ensure that they offer the best meals possible, considering the client’s specific medical needs, medications, food restrictions, and, definitely not least, preferences (such as vegetarian food), independent of their medical restrictions.
When it comes to helping people living with HIV/AIDS, those restrictions and needs have changed over the last thirty years. And to some extent,
these changes have followed closely the changes in the AIDS pandemic itself.
“Early on in our history, our meals were designed to get people to eat as much as possible, because they were all wasting away,” Pearl explains. “Our meals were designed around two things: calories to bulk you up, and [presentation] to make it look really beautiful and appetizing, because one of the things that happened…people [living] with HIV/AIDS sort of lost their appetite.
“[When] ARVs came onboard, a couple of things changed. More people were living better and longer, [and] didn’t need us as much—that’s a good thing. And the nutritional needs of those who did need us did change, [too]. They, now, needed to start eating a balanced meal that was less about bulking up and more about sustaining people as they lived and aged.
“And now, even a few more years later, that people have been on ARVs for twenty-odd years, now it’s changed [again, in] that there are many secondary [issues]. We call them co-morbidities. We’re finding that we’re working with people living with HIV/AIDS who also have heart disease, diabetes, [and] renal problems. Their meals, today, have less to do with their HIV, and more to do with [related] co-morbidities.”
Over the years, God’s Love We Deliver started serving people living with health issues other than HIV/AIDS. And, from helping individuals living with cancer or heart disease, God’s Love has learned more about how to do the same for HIV patients who, over time, have developed cancer or heart disease.
In addition, individuals who have been on ARV medications for a very long time may have developed neuropathy; therefore, unable to handle heavy pots and pans. Hence, they may also end up needing the help of God’s Love We Deliver.
Also, while today’s focus is on getting everybody to be virally suppressed, truth is that that’s not always the case. Some people may struggle with their medications, and end up needing help.
Listening to Karen Pearl explain what it really takes to deliver God’s love, day in and day out, I find the process quite complex, even daunting. “It’s complex, but also very simple,” Pearl says, when I mention it to her. “And the simple part is that food is love,” she adds. “God’s Love will always be there for people who are sick, and can’t shop and cook for themselves, when [they] don’t have, not just food, [but also] nutrition.”
For three decades, God’s Love has delivered food and hope to many, many people. “I’m so grateful, because I couldn’t feed myself, I couldn’t cook…I couldn’t do anything. [and] I was so hungry,” God’s Love client, Dahlia, says. “Having the food cooked for me and my child, and delivered to my door has changed my life. I can feel myself getting a little bit stronger, every day.” To Paul, another client, the food tastes like a home-cooked meal, prepared with tender loving care. “I do feel loved and cared for, like my mother or grandmother is looking out for me, and making sure that I eat well,” he says. “It’s made me feel loved, energized, [and] healthy. It made me feel like my old self.”
This May God’s Love We Deliver plans a small thirtieth-anniversary celebration with the staff, volunteers, and closest friends. “Probably we’re going to have some special people in the kitchen working that day, going out on deliveries,” Pearl says. A much bigger celebration is only a month away, when God’s Love We Deliver (now operating from a temporary location in Brooklyn) will be moving back to its newly renovated and expanded home, in SoHo, from where it will be able to continue—and expand—its work.
“Our board, staff, and volunteers have always been dedicated and will continue to be dedicated to finding every single person in our service area who needs us,” Pearl says, mentioning future goals for the organization. “Unfortunately people who are sick are often the people who’re least visible, because they can’t really get out very much. So that’s our goal, to find them through our outreach and other community organizations, hospitals and treatment centers. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that nobody who’s at home, sick and hungry is going without home delivered meals, if they need it.”
There are three ways in which the rest of us can help deliver God’s love to those who need it the most. “One is to do exactly what [A&U] is doing, which is to be an ambassador, tell people about us,” Pearl explains. Second is to volunteer, and join GLWD’s 8,000 volunteers, some working there for twenty years, others for only one. Third is to donate, thus help God’s Love keep delivering love, food, and also hope.
“We completely embrace the hope for an AIDS-free generation,” Karen Pearl says, “and we’ll always be there for people who’re living with HIV and AIDS, and who need our help. The core operating principle is that we will never turn anybody away who needs us. If that changes tomorrow or in a year or ten years, we will be there, however long it takes.”
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.