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Healing Meals youth volunteers prepare meals for families in health crisis.

Food is intrinsic to good health. And it’s never more crucial than when a person is battling a serious illness. But the energy, willingness and ability — and most of all, time — to prepare a nutritious meal for the whole family can get wiped out when doctor appointments and medical treatments fill the calendar.

Sarah Leathers, the founder and CEO of Healing Meals, talks about a mother driving home from the hospital after spending the day doing chemo, wondering how she’s going to feed her family that night. Leathers knows that when one family member is in crisis, the whole family is in crisis. Stress builds, people stop taking care of themselves properly, healthy habits go out the window. But everyone has to eat.

The team at Healing Meals in Bloomfield is trying to do their part, and in the process is doing so much more. Adult volunteers prep the food during the day on Wednesday. The youth volunteers show up around 3 p.m. and do the cooking. On Thursdays, the meals — for the whole week, and for the whole family — are put together and packed up. At about 5 p.m. the “delivery angels” show up and begin the process of distributing healthy, organic dinners to families all over the Greater Hartford area.

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“You deliver to all walks of life,” says volunteer Karin Sebolt. “You can deliver to the wealthiest part of Hartford and then to one of the less-economically developed parts. The gratitude is the same across the board.”

It’s a win-win. Adults and kids become involved in their community and work side by side for the greater good. Volunteers and clients alike learn about nutrition and how it’s important to feed the mind, body and spirit. Those who are sick receive compassion and a helping hand. Those who give of their time find fulfillment and create a domino effect of kindness.

Healing Meals serves a family for 12 weeks. Leathers says it takes time to change eating habits and to truly see the impact of nourishing food. She wants to educate them on why organic, clean food matters, and why they should get rid of anything processed. Because it’s in these times when people are most vulnerable and more receptive to a change in lifestyle.

Catherine Yang, a 16-year-old Farmington High School student and volunteer, says she’s always enjoyed cooking and baking but constantly annoys her parents by making a mess in the kitchen. Yang also says she knows a lot of people who have been affected by a serious illness. “That’s really upsetting to me,” Yang says. “I wanted to do something where I could pursue my hobby but then also give back to my community. And I think Healing Meals is a really unique outlet that allows me to do so.”

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The idea for Healing Meals is 100 percent based on a program conceived 13 years ago by Leathers’ sister, Cathryn Couch, in Sonoma County, California, called the Ceres Community Project. Healing Meals is now one of 11 affiliates in the country (with another in Denmark). “We didn’t start at ground zero,” Leathers says. “We started way ahead of the game based on what Cathryn had learned.”

Leathers and her group went out to the West Coast for training in November 2015, came home and wrote letters to 350 friends and family members. They needed to raise money. They also needed to find clients. And as most of us know all too well, the latter wasn’t difficult. At times there has been a waiting list, which is particularly heartbreaking for Leathers.

Healing Meals currently reaches 50 towns. An admittedly overly ambitious goal is to be able to cover the entire state within the next five years. Until then, Leathers and her angels will keep delivering care and love in the form of nutritious food to those down on their luck. “The cards that we get from our clients to say ‘thank you’ are read to our volunteers,” Leathers says. “And we can say to them, ‘You did that.’ ”

This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.