Beth Kantor of Plymouth was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about five years ago, after years of debilitating fatigue. The disease sometimes left her so tired that she was unable to even turn her head, let alone make dinner for her four kids.
Kantor turned to Open Arms of Minnesota when she relapsed with the disease about four years ago. The nonprofit provided her family with fresh meals.
“The meals made me feel loved,” Kantor said. “It made me feel not alone. It wasn’t just nourishment for my body.”
Open Arms has provided fresh meals to people like Kantor for 30 years, helping them stay independent during times of sickness. The organization delivered nearly half a million meals to people with cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, MS and HIV/AIDS and their caregivers in 2015, all at no cost to them.
“It’s life changing,” Kantor said. “It’s life saving, and the impact it has on this community is humbling.”
University of Minnesota professor Bill Rowe founded Open Arms of Minnesota 30 years ago. He began by cooking food for friends with AIDS who became too sick to cook for themselves, and by 1997, he was serving 100 people a day.
“I think he felt helpless in the face of a very large problem,” executive director Leah Hebert said. “It was an act of kindness that just grew and grew.”
The organization expanded to serving people with other diseases in the mid-2000s and moved into its current building in 2010. It has since expanded to offer community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares and nutrition therapy to clients.
“It’s still about comfort, but we have much more of a nutritional focus as well,” Hebert said.
Executive chef Steven Howard said his team focuses on cooking foods that offer people comfort, adding that people with certain diseases can be sensitive to spices. He makes sure the meals are nutritionally balanced and limits flavors such as black pepper, chili and paprika.
“Anything spicy can have a real metallic flavor,” Howard said. “We try to be careful about not adding discomfort.”
Volunteers deliver meals to clients once a week around the lunch hour. Clients are eligible to receive meals for up to six weeks after they finish their treatment.
Hebert said Open Arms plays an important role in keeping people independent during times of sickness. She noted how grateful clients are to receive meals and added she’s been amazed at the passion of the organization’s volunteers.
“People come here [to volunteer] and have a tangible impact,” Hebert said. “You know [you] did something that’s going to affect someone’s life, and that’s powerful.”
That positive energy could be seen on a recent April afternoon as volunteers baked cookies and prepared chicken and Brussels sprouts.
Creighton Fricele, a volunteer of nine years, prepped the Brussels sprouts alongside volunteer Jenni Wild. He said he likes Open Arms of Minnesota’s mission and staff, adding that he appreciates the variety of the volunteer work.
“It’s just a fun place to volunteer for a couple hours a week,” he said.
Longtime volunteer Dennis Louie first encountered the organization at a gay pride festival in 1993 and began volunteering within the week.
“I was put in charge of making a vinaigrette salad dressing and I was in heaven!” Louie said in an email. “Twenty-three years later, I am still loving it.”
Rowe died this past spring, and Louie said Rowe would be proud of what the organization has become.
“If the need is there, Open Arms is there to help,” Louie said. “It doesn’t get better or more generous than that.”
Open Arms of Minnesota
Location: 2500 Bloomington Ave. S.
Year founded: 1986
By the numbers:
30 — Years Open Arms of Minnesota has provided meals to people with various diseases, all at no cost.
1,000 — Clients Open Arms of Minnesota serves each week.
10 — Menus the organization offers, from heart healthy to “meat and potatoes,” African style and gluten free.
477,000 — Meals Open Arms of Minnesota distributed in 2015.
5,500 — Active volunteers in 2015. They donated the equivalent of 30 staff, Hebert said.
What you can do:
— Volunteer with the organization or in its urban garden. There’s a variety of tasks for volunteers, from cooking to baking and art work.
— Donate at its website or through a workplace program, or donate supplies (find a list of needs at openarmsmn.org/donate/donatesupplies.)
— Purchase boxed lunches, which cost $12 each. “Every time you buy, it provides a meal for clients,” Hebert said.
About the Where We Live project
This project is an ongoing series spearheaded by Journals’ publisher Janis Hall showcasing Minneapolis nonprofits doing important work in the community. The editorial team has selected organizations to spotlight. Nate Gotlieb is the writer for the project. To read previous features, go to southwestjournal.com/section/focus/where-we-live