Getting well sooner

Accepting a Foothills United Way “Spirit of the Community” award for Project Homecoming (Ms. Phillips is center).

Local non-profit solves a major healthcare problem with an elegant solution, garnering local praise and national attention along the way |

When both of Francea Phillips’ parents were hospitalized with congestive heart failure, the ordeal was like a one-two punch. But nothing could have prepared Ms. Phillips for the scene that played out when her mom and dad were released home.

“They were completely overwhelmed,” she explains. “They were sitting in their master bedroom, in their matching rocking chairs, and my dad looked at me and said, ‘they should have let us die.’”

Overwhelmed by a litany of doctors’ orders, complicated new dietary restrictions, and the lousy incapacitation that accompanies major illness, the couple found themselves in a pickle people of all ages often encounter post-hospitalization: they were unable to manage their own nutrition, a critical aspect of their recovery.

Ms. Phillips is the executive director of Boulder Meals On Wheels, an organization that has provided home-delivered meals to community members for more than 45 years.

Her parents’ predicament got Ms. Phillips and her team back in Boulder thinking:  what if Meals On Wheels could reach out to locals recently released from the hospital, and provide hot meals for five days to tide them through the recovery hump?

“We already provide large-scale home delivery of nutritious meals, many of which have to meet strict dietary restrictions,” Ms. Phillips explains. “Why not reach out?”

To assess the need, the Meals On Wheels team talked to hospital discharge nurses who reacted with urgency and emotion.

“One nurse burst into tears,” says Ms. Phillips. “These nurses know firsthand why people end up back in the hospital – sometimes sicker than they were.”

Need fully confirmed, Boulder Meals On Wheels launched Project Homecoming in 2007. Today, the program provides a nutritious, dietary-specific, home-delivered hot meal for five days at no cost to anyone in Boulder County who is recovering from any illness. 

Since its launch in the city of Boulder, the program has branched out countywide through partnerships with Longmont Meals On Wheels and Coal Creek Meals On Wheels. Serving anyone who has been “touched by medical hands,” clients come from all major hospitals, rehabilitation centers, Rocky Mountain Cancer Center, and other healthcare institutions. Discharge nurses are the major source of referrals.

Hip surgery. Knee replacement. Car accident. Chemo. For these and a variety of reasons some 12 – 15 Boulder residents use the service each month. About 30% go on to become regular Boulder Meals On Wheels clients.  Longmont and Coal Creek Meals On Wheels serve similar numbers of patients.  

Project Homecoming’s novel approach to such an elemental part of the healing process has gained the attention of organizations like Kaiser Permanente, White Wave Foods, and Exempla Good Samaritan Foundation, who have since become major sponsors. The organization was recognized with Foothills United Way’s Spirit of the Community award in 2011.

Moreover, the program has hit the radar of Meals On Wheels organizations across the country, as well as hospitals near and far.  The Meals On Wheels Association of America is studying Project Homecoming, and considering rolling it out as a model for its independent member organizations nationwide.

“It’s exciting because organizations like ours are so well positioned to help,” Ms. Phillips says. “The program isn’t at all overwhelming. It is in fact very doable.”

We’re reminded of the eloquent words of Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.

Boulder Meals On Wheels makes Boulder County a great place to live, and we’re honored to make the organization our Featured Friend for March. Read more here.  Next up: Hip, Hot Cuisine.