Simsbury resident Sarah Leathers started the Healing Meals Community Project as a way to provide fresh and healthy meals for families facing health problems.
In its first year, Leathers, co-founder Ellen Palmer, and her team of adult and youth volunteers have prepared 7,000 meals for local families. They've outgrown their space, too, and just recently relocated their Avon-based kitchen from the New England Pasta Company to the North House.
Leathers got the idea to start Healing Meals from her sister, who started the Ceres Community Project in California 10 years ago. Leathers and her team were trained by her sister and Healing Meals became an affiliate of Ceres.
Leathers' previous career was in the corporate world. After she went through a health crisis that made her unable to work, she studied at the Institute for Integrated Nutrition, where she became certified in health and wellness. It was through that experience of healing herself that the realization of how important eating healthy is came to Leathers.
"We understand that food is medicine and that healing is a process," Leathers said. "It's important to eat well, it's important to manage stress, and it's important to be supported by community."
Most of the time, Healing Meals is sending its food to families where a member has cancer. The focus is on making healthy, but attractive, food that will make eating more desirable to someone who is sick. They've served 85 families to date.
"For our clients, when someone doesn't feel well and doesn't feel like eating, if you see a plain piece of chicken and brown rice, it doesn't look appetizing," Leathers said. "For us, it's all about color and taste."
Palmer, who is the associate director, also studied at the Institute for Integrated Nutrition. Like Leathers, she also had health issues.
"Food and self-care healed everything I was going through in my life," Palmer said. "That's why I am so passionate about what we do and the countless hours we spend. They don't even really feel like work. It's such a labor of love."
The other side of Leathers' nonprofit is its youth volunteers. While it has adult volunteers, the cooking is handled weekly by volunteers between the ages of 14 and 24, who are receiving kitchen experience. Around 150 youth have come through the program.
"They're learning to cook healthy," Leathers said. "It's a huge aspect of this program. They're learning knife skills. We talk about why to choose organic foods."
Palmer said the youth participation is her favorite thing about Healing Meals.
"We are seeing them tap into this sense of pride that what they're doing is important and affecting the lives of other people," Palmer said. "It fuels me in a way I can't even describe. That's what powers me. The youth leadership part of this is so important. These kids have so much to offer."
One of those volunteers is Sam Louden, a 15-year-old West Hartford resident. When he came, he had very little kitchen experience. But now, he's capable of taking charge in the kitchen, which is a source of satisfaction.
"I've learned a lot of skills and techniques," Louden said. "My kitchen common sense has improved."
Making the meals and knowing they are going to families in need leaves Louden feeling good after volunteering.
"It's the core concept of this," Louden said. "Out of all the ways you can help people, this is one of the best ways. Those people might not have any other option to get healthy food. It's really changing their lives. This takes one piece of stress away from their day, which really helps a lot."
And when it does change a life, that's Leathers' reward.
"We received a card today, and we receive them all the time and we read them to the kids," Leathers said. "This client wrote us a beautiful card and I told the kids, 'That's what you did. You showed up. You made those meals. And you saved that life. You can always think about that and realize you've made an incredible difference in their lives.'"