Gluten-free meals … with a side of gratitude

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Spend 30 minutes chatting with Julianne DeSpain, and you can’t help but think, “I want to be more like her!”

Julianne Despain with her cat, Bear
Project Angel Heart meals have helped Julianne DeSpain, pictured here with her cat, Bear, gain needed weight and deal with the illness and loss of a loved one.

That may seem an unlikely wish considering that Julianne has experienced physical and emotional hardships well beyond her 56 years. She is largely confined to a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis, and in July, she lost her partner, Doti, to congestive heart failure. Yet Julianne’s gratitude and optimism shine brightly enough to eclipse both her health challenges and her heartbreak.

Julianne, a retired physical therapist and Chinese medicine physician, and Doti, a retired nurse who suffered from severe arthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), had lived together for 10 years. “I was Doti’s caregiver for the last few years, even though I’m disabled myself,” says Julianne. “One of our biggest struggles was getting good food. I would drive to the store, buy groceries, come home and cook, or go to restaurants and pick up meals, but it was exhausting.”

When a social worker first told Julianne about Project Angel Heart in 2013, she was reluctant to reach out. “Being a provider and caregiver for others my whole life, it was really hard to ask for help,” she says. But a year later, after her weight plummeted to 110 pounds and Doti’s health was deteriorating, another social worker once again recommended Project Angel Heart—and this time, Julianne made the call.

In October 2014, Project Angel Heart began delivering meals to Julianne and Doti’s Lakewood home. In addition to receiving nutritious gluten- and dairy-free meals to help manage her MS and celiac disease, Julianne says she was given an even more precious gift. “Getting food from Project Angel Heart meant that I didn’t have to travel or cook as much, so I could focus on my care and Doti’s care. It gave me more time with someone I loved.”

In the past year, Julianne has gained 20 pounds and is feeling stronger and more energetic, thanks to the customized meals from Project Angel Heart and a change in her MS medications. “Even though I’m on a restricted diet, there are plenty of good things to eat,” she says. “They give me lots of fruits and vegetables, rice and beans, pork and chicken and fish. The meals are better than some of the restaurant food I was buying and bringing home! And they’re easy to prepare, which means I can focus my energy on things like taking a shower, getting dressed and other daily tasks.”

Julianne has also gained an immense sense of gratitude for Project Angel Heart. “Food, water and shelter are basic human needs,” she says. “Project Angel Heart gets to the core of what a person needs to live—and they do it in a nonjudgmental way. They make sure the people in the program are appropriate, but they don’t make you jump through hoops to become a client. They promote a person’s dignity and independence, and they make you feel good. Everyone there is so supportive, from the people who answer the phones to the volunteers who deliver the meals. They even decorate the bags! That’s just one more thing that impresses me about this group.”

Julianne also appreciates the fact that Project Angel Heart provides meals free of charge. “It was becoming cost-prohibitive to pay for restaurant meals and delivery, and the foods were high in sodium and fat. I’m on Social Security and my budget is tight, so not having to pay for these meals frees up my funds for medications, which are crazy expensive for MS.”

Despite Doti’s loss and the uncertainty of her own health, Julianne sees her glass as half full. “All of my challenges have made me the person I am today. I practice gratefulness and meditation, and I do my best to have a positive attitude, because that’s the only thing I can control. Having been a physical therapist for 20 years, I know that attitude is the biggest factor in getting through difficult situations.”

“I’m stubborn and strong-minded, and I hope I’ll be able to cook again someday,” adds Julianne, “but if I ever need Project Angel Heart, I know they’ll be here for me.”