INSPIRED IMPACT™ features purpose-driven leaders and social entrepreneurs who are making a meaningful impact in their communities, industries, and around the world.
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Owen Ryan and I’m president & CEO of Project Angel Heart. We provide medically tailored meals to Coloradans suffering from chronic and life-threatening illnesses including congestive heart failure, end-stage renal disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, HIV, and many types of cancer. Since our founding in 1991, we have served more than seven million meals to people across the state.
Anyone who has ever had a family member or close friend struggling with a life-changing illness knows how difficult the simplest, day-to-day tasks become. Their entire world is turned upside down. In some cases, what makes the difference between recovery and decline is how well a person’s basic necessities are taken care of.
We see ourselves as an essential part of that recovery. Many of our clients report that – prior to receiving our meals – they were making trade-offs between paying for medicine or paying for food. Recovering from illness is stressful enough without adding the pressure of finding and preparing food.
We work hard to make sure our clients are getting the meals they need with the tastes they want. Our meals are made from scratch, designed by our executive chef and registered dietician nutritionist, and medically tailored based on our clients’ needs. These aren’t your childhood TV dinners. Just recently, we served Italian braised beef, Cincinnati chili, and Sri Lankan black pork curry.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
While I was living overseas and serving as the executive director of the International AIDS Society, the world’s largest independent association for HIV professionals, a friend in Denver became a Project Angel Heart client. Although I was thousands of miles away, I got to see the unique impact Project Angel Heart is having in Colorado through his eyes. It’s hard to overstate how important the love and caring shown by the staff and volunteers were to his well-being and state of mind.
Much of my career has been focused on international development. I think that work is tremendously important, but for me, it was time to “make good” at home. It’s rare to have a chance to lead an organization that has also had an impact on my own life. It’s even rarer to do that at a place that has been having this kind of impact for almost 30 years.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY DOES THE WORLD NEED PROJECT ANGEL HEART?
Our vision is for our community to be healthier, happier, and stronger because nutritious food is seen as a key component of health and available to all who need it. In recent history, the important role of food in both preventing and treating life-threatening health conditions has been undervalued.
Access to healthy food can be a struggle for people who are ill, regardless of where they live. This disparity – those who can access healthy food and those who can’t – is exacerbated by an even bigger challenge: those who know what food they need and those who don’t. We’re here to help bridge that gap.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
Since Project Angel Heart was founded in 1991, we’ve heard from clients, their caregivers, and their doctors that receiving our meals improves health. Recently, we sought to prove how big an improvement that was. Using medical claims data, we learned that not only were people who started receiving our meals reporting better health outcomes, but their health was also leading to dramatically reduced costs to the healthcare system. Specifically, we saw a 13% reduction in 30-day readmission to hospitals and a 24% decrease in total medical costs for patients with diabetes, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Those savings didn’t come at a sacrifice to our clients. Almost two-thirds reported that our meals helped them stay independent at home, and 3 out of 4 reported improved quality of life.
And that is only part of the picture. When our volunteers show up at a client’s door to make their weekly meal delivery, many times they are the only person our client will interact with on a regular basis. We know that we are more than a meal provider to them. This is why we make sure all of our clients feel the love: our delivery bags are hand decorated by thousands of volunteers, and each year on their birthday our clients receive a hand-written card and a small cake.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
My parents made giving back and volunteering a natural part of my childhood. We were always organizing a fundraiser or a donation drive, dropping off meals to seniors, or volunteering around the neighborhood. As I got older, I gained a better appreciation for what they were teaching and how much they led by example. My father, who turns 80 this month, has been an active member of my hometown volunteer first aid squad for more than 60 years. In that time, I’ve never seen him ask for recognition or thanks. He does that work because he believes in it.
I see that example in all of our volunteers. It takes more than 500 people every week to prepare and deliver our meals. And every day, rain or shine (or both), volunteers show up from around the state to pitch in and help make it happen. We could not – I can’t stress this enough – could not get this work done without the dedication and heart of our volunteers.
So, if they can show up to volunteer when there’s six inches of snow on the ground, and my Dad can get in an ambulance when it’s 25 degrees out, then I can get out there and hustle to make sure more people benefit from Project Angel Heart’s work.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM, FOR THE ORGANIZATION AND THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
Today, Project Angel Heart serves approximately 3,200 people from across Colorado every year. My big dream is to see us reach more than 10,000 people a year with our meal program and nutrition services. While that won’t reach everyone in need – one estimate calculated that more than 35,000 people in metro Denver alone needed our program – it will go a long way to bringing medically tailored meals to communities that need them.
To do that, we need to find new ways to support our work. Currently, most of our clients receive meals that are supported by philanthropic donations. That includes hundreds of donations of $25 or $50 that sustain our program every year and help us match gifts made by private foundations and local government.
Only a small percentage of our clients are covered by their insurance or medical provider. In many parts of the country, public and private insurance systems are set up to provide medically tailored meals to people in need. In Colorado, we have more work to do to ensure insurance plans provide what Coloradans need – and that is a big priority for us over the next few years.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
Every month, we have more people who need our meals than the resources on hand to provide them. Clients referred to Project Angel Heart today will generally wait 5-8 weeks to start receiving our meals. When you’re ill, that is an eternity.
We are incredibly grateful for all of the donors who choose to support Project Angel Heart, and we know there is a lot of competition for those dollars, but the truth is – we need more.
WHAT WORDS OF ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER LEADERS LOOKING TO MAKE AN IMPACT?
Tell your story, tell it often, and always say thank you. It’s easy to miss how important it is to make sure people understand what you do, why you do it, and the impact it has on others. Your community needs to hear your story so find every opportunity you can to tell it. Similarly, as a CEO, you’re always on the search for your next supporter so it can be easy to take for granted those who helped you get this far. Remember to practice gratitude. There is no such thing as saying “thank you” too much.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT THE IMPORTANT WORK YOU’RE DOING?
Food has the power to nourish and heal. Food is medicine.
Too often, we see food as charity – something to alleviate hunger. And while that can be true, food can also be transformative. The right diet and nutrition aren’t going to cure someone’s cancer, but the wrong food and nutrition will definitely impede any of their other medicine and treatment from working. It’s about balance and recognizing that the choices you make at the grocery store can have just as big of an impact as the prescriptions you pick up at the pharmacy.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
Come by and visit us. We are always happy to give a tour of our operations in Denver or Colorado Springs. If you’d like to volunteer or donate, we are at projectangelheart.org.
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