by Emily Morrison
On Sundays, hundreds of people come in and out of Door A at Woodland Hills, but on Wednesdays, it’s a small band of people sitting outside the doors laughing and chatting. These are the volunteer drivers for Open Arms of Minnesota.
Open Arms of Minnesota is a nonprofit organization that prepares and delivers nourishing meals free of charge to critically ill Minnesotans and their loved ones, and they use Woodland as a satellite site for delivery routes.
All meals are made from scratch in Open Arms’ kitchen and bakery with organic ingredients from their own farm. They make kids meals, caregiver meals, culturally-specific foods, and also meals based on the effects of certain illnesses, for example: customized food for those going through chemotherapy.
Carrie Callaghan, who manages volunteers at this site, has been serving along with her sister Kelly for over 15 years. Early on in their volunteer years, they decided to bring their mom, Nancy, with them for a day. Carrie said, “We weren’t even all the way back to the house when Mom said, ‘Ok, next time…’” And from them on Nancy was a regular. “She was the navigator, just maps—no smartphones back then. We had so much fun and really good conversations. It was a couple days a week with no distractions, our special time together.”
Over time, Nancy’s health deteriorated. One Monday in 2010, her doctor asked her to come in for some tests and her response was, “I can’t, I have to deliver food to sick people.” Nancy’s doctor responded, “Maybe you should be the one getting food!” But Nancy went on her route with her daughters, just like she always did. That Friday she went into hospice and on Sunday she passed. Carrie and Kelly thought, “Well, we can’t quit Open Arms now!”
The route that runs out of Woodland is named “Nancy’s route” in her honor, and Carrie and Kelly’s dedication carry on her legacy.
Volunteer drivers gather weekly in Woodland’s parking space to load up food for their deliveries. This partnership began when Rick Gigante, a Woodland Hills attendee, asked if Woodland would be interested in hosting a satellite site. Woodland said yes, and the group was pleased. “We have access to a bathroom, space to wait inside when it’s cold, and an overhang. We’re happy as heck!”
After months or years of driving the same routes, many drivers get to know and build relationships with their clients. Some clients can only manage to get to the door, while others who may receive few visitors, want to spend time chatting. Open Arms delivers cakes on birthdays, along with a happy birthday song. (Although there is some debate among the drivers whether the birthday song is required or just highly recommended!) Occasionally, former clients have even become delivery drivers after they have recovered.
Carrie said that it’s exciting to see clients who are improving, but hard to watch those whose bodies are failing. Any time the names on a route sheet change she wonders, “Are they okay?” Carrie said that when clients die, it’s like losing a friend.
On a fall afternoon, I joined Rick on Route #2 to see the work for myself. After loading up his car with the designated meals, Rick looked over the list of clients, and prayed for each by name.
Then we went to the first home, a widow who had lost her husband that month. (Open Arms continues to provide meals for bereaved family members after their loved ones have passed.) We stood in her driveway for a while as she told us about the recent weeks and her husband’s illness.
As we walked back to the car, Rick said, “Some people just need someone to talk to. That’s what we got to do for her today.”
Rick is retired and says he is “always looking for ways to share love.” Over the years he has volunteered for many organizations, but this ministry is something he has found meaningful in retirement. “I thrive on people, on direct ministry. There’s nothing like helping directly—all of them have unsurpassable worth, and when you look them in the eye and you establish a connection, there’s nothing more rewarding.”
At our next stop, Rick chatted with a long-time client he has gotten to know bit by bit over the years. This client looked at me and said, “I am one of the people who really really needs it and I have no way of getting it without Open Arms.” As we walked away Rick said, “Did you notice the tear in his eye?”
No one answered the door at our next stop, so Rick returned to this home three more times later in our trip to try and complete the drop off. He explained that sometimes for whatever reason they are unable to make contact and have to wait another week to reach a client.
Rick checked his notes for the fourth stop. “This family doesn’t speak English, but I will call them and say ‘mov.’ It’s the Hmong word for food, and they’ll know it’s me.”
This was a quick drop, and as we drove away, I asked Rick about his years at Woodland. He said that one of the best things to come out of Woodland was relationships. “I never understood what Greg meant when he talked about how deep he went with his group of friends. But then we joined a group at Woodland that turned into years of connection and helped us discover our gift of hospitality.”
Rick’s wife Denise also volunteers, and loves Open Arms. “Having done nursing for many years, I’ve never seen anything like this for patients before. It’s tailor-made, and the highest quality. Every other program I know charges people, but this is free. It’s amazing and it’s directly helping people.”
After our last delivery, Rick and I headed back to the church. I asked him for any final thoughts about his volunteer experience. He said, “We’re talking about eternity. Whatever seed you can plant, you never know.”
Thank you Rick, Carrie, Kelly and all the others who are doing this good work!
To learn more about Open Arms or find out about volunteering, see our partner page here.