When a Village Project volunteer brings a meal to a cancer patient and his or her family, the kindness doesn’t stop there.
Barb Harrell, executive director of the organization, puts it this way: “The first response when someone is ill is, ‘Can I bring you a meal?’ which is great, but it’s a starting point, not the end.”
What the volunteers found after the organization was launched in 2010 was that people needed help with basic household needs — mowing the lawn, grocery shopping, laundry and being driven to appointments.
“But there are things that people just don’t ask about,” Harrell says. “So we look to see where we can help. We learn a lot from the people we serve. We learn a lot from our volunteers, and we are helping transform the lives of our volunteers.”
Harrell founded the Village Project after her mother-in-law, who had no family members to help her, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Then Harrell learned more about the client side of the cancer experience when her husband, Jeff had a cancerous tumor removed in 2012. She experienced the care and concern of others wanting to assist them.
“A lot of people want to help; they want someone to organize them,” she says. “This is a place where they can come, and whatever their gifts and talents are, we’ll use them.
“It’s amazing how they come together. The Lord brings the right people at the right time. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Bay Presbyterian Church, where Harrell had been human resources director for 14 years, offered the group kitchen space for its first years. The project is modeled after the Ceres Community Project in Sebastopol, California, and taps high school students as cooks, under the supervision of adults. Even younger student volunteers are put to use by tending an organic garden that supplies vegetables and fresh flowers.
“The transformation in all these kids is phenomenal,” Harrell says. “They learn to respect that when they are here, they are serving a purpose.”
To help ensure that goal, kitchen workers are not paired with their friends, but with students in other grades. Six students work in the kitchen at a time, three days a week. Schedules are juggled around extracurricular activities so there is a steady supply of workers.
No charge for meals
The Village Project quickly outgrew its quarters at Bay Presbyterian Church and has moved to a new Bay Village location on West Oviatt Road. About 500 volunteers give their time for the project — 80 are high school students.
“We recently hit our highest meal day ever, 45 individuals, 20 homes,” Harrell says. “What that means is each person in the family receives food. They receive three full meals for each person, side dishes and a dessert. So that means on that day, 135 meals went out of our kitchen.”
While the Village Project originally served only Bay Village, Avon Lake, Rocky River and Westlake have been added to its service area. Clients receive food for 12 weeks for free. After that, if they would like to continue, they are asked to donate cash if they can.
“If they can, great. If they can’t, we will continue to feed them,” Harrell says.
Supporting the effort
A few generous donors helped with seed money to start the Village Project, and fundraising efforts helped the organization net money to purchase food.
“The first year, 75 percent of our money came from individuals,” Harrell says. “Now it has changed a little bit; we are receiving help from more foundations.”
Harrell particularly appreciates support from the Community West Foundation.
“I just applied for our third grant,” she says. “They gave us $15,000 the first year, then $20,000, and this year we applied for a little bit more.”
Project Pedal, a multigenerational charitable ride through Bay Village, raised $25,000 in its first year. Volunteers, including high school students, helped develop the project. Another drive is Project Leaf, in which students offer to rake residents’ leaves for donations.
As for what’s next, Harrell says demand is ever-increasing, and the organizations facilities are being maxed out. The number of clients has grown 400 percent since the organization began.
“Our capacity is 50 meals because we have a soup kettle that only holds that many servings,” she says. “So what do we do? We cook four days a week. That eliminates the need to expand the facilities and add equipment.”