People move in and out of the kitchen at Calvary United Methodist Church, quietly intent on creating the eight nourishing dishes on the day’s menu.
At a center table, 19-year-old Emily Heard expertly slices and dices vegetables, checking her progress as time ticks away.
All around her people are stirring simmering pots, pulling sheet pans of roasted vegetables from the oven or pouring rich broth into individual containers.
In just a few hours, these meals will be packed up and delivered to dozens of people in Davidson and Williamson counties courtesy of the Heimerdinger Foundation’s Meals 4 Health & Healing program.
All the recipients have one thing in common: they’re going through cancer treatment.
Founded five years ago, the organization emphasizes the importance of organic, nutrient-rich foods as part of the healing process for those battling cancer. Emily has been a volunteer with them for two years, attracted more by the opportunity to help others than by a love of cooking or interest in organic foods. Her time here has shifted her thinking — and her eating habits.
“I don’t eat white bread anymore,” she says. “I’ve learned here that what you put in your body is very important to your overall health. I’ve seen that from our clients, and then recently I had health issues that led me to go gluten-free. I realized, ‘Oh, I have all of these recipes. I know that millet and quinoa are gluten-free. I’m good.’”
Stirred to join
The Heimerdinger Foundation was created in memory of Titans Offensive Coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who passed away in 2011 from a rare form of cancer.
As he battled the disease, he and his wife , Kathie, began learning about the role that diet and lifestyle play in overall health, and he made changes that helped him during treatment. Kathie started the Foundation to share that knowledge and provide nourishing meals to patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which can affect both appetite and the ability to eat.
Research shows that nearly 80% of cancer patients end up malnourished as a result of cancer treatment.
Emily had just transferred to Hillsboro High School as a junior when a Heimerdinger Foundation staffer visited one of her classes and asked if anyone was interested in volunteering. She had the free time to commit to the organization and it was just across the street from school, but their work also touched her personally.
“My grandmother was going through her second battle with breast cancer, so it felt right,” Emily says.
She signed up, committing to stay on for the required three months. The orientation and training process is thorough and requires teen volunteers to learn and hone a variety of skills, from composting to organic gardening to nutrition and, of course, meal preparation. Eventually, Emily was paired with a teen mentor chef, Abby, who instructed her on using a knife properly and kitchen sanitation.
“A lot of people with cancer have lowered immune systems, so it’s super important that everything is sanitized and clean,” she says.
“We have a lot of rules about that. I’m very clean, so I love all of the organization and cleanliness.”
As Emily learned to cook, she learned about what she was cooking. During breaks from the kitchen tasks, the foundation’s Chef and Teen Coordinator Laura Rodriguez serves snacks to the volunteers and educates them on the ingredients they are working with, as well as healthy substitutes for some common foods.
“At first I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to substitute anything. I like my white bread and white rice because it tastes good,’” Emily recalls.
“But I learned that you don’t have to eat plain quinoa or millet. You can add all kinds of ingredients to them that add flavor. I became convinced — but my family still isn’t on board. I made some quinoa fried “rice” recently — that’s my favorite recipe that we make here — and everyone liked it.”
Ingredients of success
Emily continued to volunteer long after her three-month commitment had passed. Her culinary skills and knowledge grew, and she took on a leadership role in the kitchen. Eventually she became a “teen mentor chef,” training the next wave of teen volunteers just as Abby trained her.
That means arriving about an hour before the newer volunteers come in to start cooking. Emily looks over the day’s recipes, figures out who needs to work on which set of skills, prepares a duties plan, and makes sure everything is set for work to begin. Though she can certainly call on staffers for help, she is in charge of her area and takes it seriously.
“I have the responsibility of making executive decisions and it’s made me a more confident person,” she says. “I’ve developed personal relationships with the people here, so it’s a place I can come and know that I’m doing good.”
While she doesn’t work with the meal recipients directly, Emily does feel connected to them. Periodically, the foundation invites clients or caregivers to visit and speak to everyone about their cancer journey and what the meals they receive mean to them. Every package that goes out has a name attached to it, and meals are custom-made to match preferences and dietary needs.
Each person who helped to prepare meals writes a personal note that is tucked into one of the outgoing packages.
“I had done a lot of service work before but never something where I saw the direct impact of the work,” Emily says. “It’s so powerful to know that your name is on a card with their meals. And you know their name too.
“Putting a name to the person makes it an even stronger connection, and it makes you hold yourself accountable to do your best. You know that the meal you have prepared is going to a specific person and that it matters to their family.”
“I would want that from someone who was helping my grandmother,” she says. “I’d want them to put in their all.”
A future of serving
Her two years with the Heimerdinger Foundation have solidified Emily’s desire to help others. She has watched the organization grow, seen its impact on both clients and volunteers, and been able to mentor others. All of that gives her a solid foundation to build upon when she completes her “gap year” between high school and college.
Next year, Emily will attend American University in Washington, D.C. to study psychology and international relations. She wants to continue being of service on a global scale, possibly with an organization like the Peace Corps.
“My dad has always been very involved in volunteer work, and I got that thirst for helping other people from him,” she says. “He’s been doing it for a long time while also doing his job and being a dad. So I know that I can do all of it.”