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Volunteer chefs prepare 16,000 meals for cancer patients often too ill to cook

Legions of volunteers with the Revive & Thrive Project have helped prepare and deliver more than 16,000 meals for families touched by cancer in the Grand Rapids area. The program was launched in 2015 by Wendy Borden, a breast cancer survivor who realized how hard it was to prepare healthy meals when her energy was depleted by cancer treatments

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - On a recent weekday afternoon when air conditioning would have been welcome, several high school teens gathered in an industrial-sized kitchen to help prepare salmon fillets, lemon chicken and pear salad for complete strangers.

It was, in many respects, a labor of love. The 133 meals being prepared and packaged this mid-September afternoon were heading to 19 households across Kent County to nourish people battling cancer.

Preparing healthy meals with fresh, local ingredients is a cornerstone of the Revive & Thrive Project, which uses volunteers, including student chefs, to prepare several days’ worth of meals for families touched by a life-threatening health crisis. Most are cancer patients.

The Revive & Thrive Project uses student volunteers to help prepare meals for cancer patients and their families

“People going through cancer are just focused on surviving; helping with meals is one less thing they have to worry about,’’ said Wendy Borden, founder and executive director of Revive & Thrive Project.

She knows from experience. Borden, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed in 2012, recalls how fatigue and listlessness made it difficult for her to prepare healthy meals while undergoing treatment.

“The treatments leave you exhausted, stressed and you simply don’t have the energy to shop and cook and clean-up and provide a healthy meal for your family,’’ she said. “You’re just doing everything you can to get to the next day.’’

Wendy Borden, a breast cancer survivor, started Revive & Thrive Project in 2015. She estimates more than 16,000 meals have been prepared.

Borden learned she was not alone.

“I knew there must be other people like myself in the community that needed support to eat healthy, so I started the Revive and Thrive Project in 2015.’’

To date, the volunteer-driven organization has prepared more than 16,000 meals using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients.

Working with grants and donations, Revive & Thrive operates in the old Ferguson Hospital building on Sheldon Avenue SE near downtown Grand Rapids. It is leasing its sixth-floor kitchen and dining area from The Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids.

Volunteer chefs prepare enough food for about five days. It includes four entrees, salad, soup and a dessert. The preparation, cooking and packaging takes about nine hours. Another group of volunteers deliver the meals.

Student chefs work with salmon fillets while preparing meals for the Revive & Thrive Project

“A lot of our clients have told us that the meals not only helped them to stay healthier and feel better, but it also gave them hope,’’ Borden said. “Knowing that strangers were cooking meals for them gave them hope to survive.’’

The Susan G. Komen Foundation earlier this year gave Revive & Thrive a grant to start a Transition to Survivorship program. The 12-week program teaches breast cancer patients and survivors how to prepare healthy meals, manage stress and chart a healthy lifestyle to sustain them after treatment.

“For many of the participants, learning to eat healthy is a big change, and so we want to provide them with those tools and resources to eat healthy and reduce their risk of a reoccurrence,’’ Borden said.

Participants in the Transition to Survivorship program, which also focuses on exercise, include MaryJo Miedema, a breast cancer survivor who was one of Revive & Thrive’s first meal recipients.

Living a healthy lifestyle after treatment is integral to keeping cancer from returning, said Miedema, who is now a Revive & Thrive volunteer.

“It’s such a valuable program because it gives us the tools that we need to continue to work to prevent future disease recurrence by nourishing our bodies with healthy, organic foods,’’ she said. “The benefits are far-reaching.’’

Student chefs learn culinary skills, including dicing onions and potatoes, which are used in meals for cancer patients and their families

Among those also benefiting from Revive & Thrive are high school students who volunteer each week to prepare meals.

They include 15-year-old Amelia Dykhuis, a freshman at Grandville High School who started volunteering over the summer.

“It’s important to learn new skills at a younger age and build on that,’’ Dykhuis said. Among the skills gleaned this Wednesday afternoon was how to skin salmon. “If you told me a month ago I’d be doing that, I wouldn’t have believed you,’’ she laughed.

Dykhuis, who has three younger siblings, says she plans to use her culinary skills to help her parents.

“I’m learning how to help my mom in the kitchen, but I’m also helping out someone who is going through a rough patch,’’ she said. “It makes me feel good to know that the meals I am preparing here are going to help someone who is in need.’’

For more information, visit Revive & Thrive Project's website.

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