When your parents are stars of TV, screen, and stage, you get to do some pretty cool things. Gideon and Harper, the 9-year-old twins of actors/writers/producers Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.; How I Met Your Mother) and David Burtka (How I Met Your Mother), have eaten ice cream in France and Italy, seen every top Broadway show from Frozen to The Lion King, and marched in New York's WorldPride parade.
Beyond offering up a healthy dose of culture, Harris and Burtka model compassion for their twins. One regular family outing involves taking meals door to door in their Harlem, New York, neighborhood for the organization God's Love We Deliver.
The people God's Love serves all have serious chronic diseases like HIV/AIDS or diabetes and have reached a point in their condition that leaves them too sick to shop and cook for themselves. Having food delivered to them offers a lifeline -- and for many meal recipients, a precious taste of human connection.
"They love the fact that there's human contact, because I don't think a lot of people are able to leave their apartment or their house," Burtka says. "People love when [our] kids come to the door."
Harris tasks Gideon and Harper with delivering food and engaging the recipients in conversation by asking them questions. Through the process of giving back, the couple has seen their children's unselfish regard for others blossom.
"They started, to be honest, in a state of dissatisfaction, not really wanting to participate: 'What are we going to do after we have delivered meals?'" Harris says. "And then, their takeaway when we were walking away was authentic appreciation for having done it and gratitude for the organization, for us as parents, and quite frankly, for them as citizens of human society."
Burtka adds: "I remember once as we were leaving an apartment, Gideon said, 'Dad, my heart feels bigger.' I thought, I'm done for the day. I've done something right as a parent."
Food Is Medicine and Love
Volunteers like Harris and Burtka deliver 8,000 meals to people each weekday. But the organization started back in 1985 with a single delivery. A hospice volunteer named Ganga Stone brought a bag of groceries to Richard Sale, who was dying of AIDS. When she returned the next day, the bag was still sitting on his counter.
For Stone it was a watershed moment. People who were very ill didn't have the energy to cook for themselves. They needed someone to prepare meals for them. "She realized in that moment that delivering a meal to somebody who was that ill could bring dignity to a very desperate situation," says Karen Pearl, God's Love president and CEO.
The organization isn't religious. Its name originated from a chance meeting. On one of her meal-delivery runs, Stone passed a minister, who asked what she was doing. When she told him, he replied, "You're not just delivering food, you're delivering God's love." The name stuck, and the organization was born.
What started as a meal delivery service for people with AIDS has since broadened into an organization that cooks and delivers 2 million meals annually to people with more than 200 medical conditions in the New York metro area. To qualify for the service, clients must have a chronic illness severe enough to limit their daily activities, as verified by their doctor. This May, as God's Love celebrates its 35th anniversary, the organization will deliver its 25 millionth meal.
A meal from God's Love is designed to provide much more than sustenance. Each one is medically tailored to a client's condition, allergies, medications, ability to chew, and dietary restrictions. With the help of more than 16,000 volunteers, every meal is cooked from scratch in God's Love's state-of-the-art SoHo kitchen, packaged, and then hand-delivered to either the clients' homes or to neighborhood distribution centers.
"I think the fact that these people are able to have something completely catered to them for the way they should be eating is really extraordinary," says Burtka, who, along with Harris and their children, has spent time in the God's Love kitchen cooking and assembling meals.
On birthdays, each of God's Love's clients gets a cake specially made, decorated, and personalized for them. The entire process exemplifies the organization's twin mottoes of "Food is medicine" and "Food is love."
That love extends beyond the clients God's Love serves. The organization recognizes that chronic illnesses affect the whole family. "What we found early on in our existence is that if, say, mom is sick -- and she's so sick she can't get up to cook -- if we bring meals just to mom, she'll give them to her kids," Pearl says. That's why they also deliver food to their clients' children and adult caregivers.
So that no one who needs food ever has to wait for it, God's Love has continually expanded to keep up with the ever-growing demand for its services. "The commitment of finding the hardest to reach, serving those who need us, and not turning people away keeps us growing, year after year," Pearl says.
Funding the Mission
Delivering thousands of meals each day isn't cheap. God's Love relies on the philanthropy of individuals, foundations, and corporations, which provide the majority of its funding. "We're lucky to have such a generous community supporting us," Pearl says.
That community comes out in full force at God's Love's annual fundraising events. Harris and Burtka have become fixtures at its Love Rocks concert, held each year at New York's historic Beacon Theater, and its Golden Heart Awards, which Harris won for Outstanding Community Service in 2015.
A few attendees at God's Love events have been lucky enough to win a private dinner party with Harris and Burtka, which raised $85,000 at auction. In addition to his work as an actor, Burtka is an accomplished chef. "David is a very experienced and talented cook. … The dinners are really fun," says Michael Anthony, executive chef of New York's Gramercy Tavern, who auctioned off the prize.
Burtka also contributed to the God's Love We Deliver Cookbook, a collection of personal stories and recipes to benefit the organization. His grilled rib eye steak with porcini rub, arugula, and oven-dried tomatoes recipe sits alongside entries from other celebrities and powerhouse chefs like Ina Garten, Michael Kors, Meryl Streep, and Daniel Boulud.
Giving Starts at Home
"We love donating our time to them because it's such a great organization," Burtka says. One reason for his affinity with God's Love is that he embraces its philosophy of food as medicine when cooking at home for his family.
"I really feel like what I give to my kids is medicine," he says. "I love putting food together that's healthy for them." Burtka serves a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables, fresh from the farmers market. Fostering a genuine love of good food in Gideon and Harper means he's never had to sneak greens into their brownies. "My kids are healthy all around. … They enjoy food just as much as we do," he says.
The couple's close connection to God's Love also stems from the organization's proximity to the renovated Harlem townhouse they've called home since 2014. "Everyone can give to larger organizations, but when it's in your hometown you can really see the impact," Harris says.
Neighbors helping neighbors is how God's Love can deliver as many meals as it does each year. Pearl is grateful for volunteers like Burtka and Harris, who bring visibility to the organization's mission while delivering compassion to its clients.
"Every single day, we are making life better for people who are in their homes and are very sick, and who, without us, would be malnourished and in great danger of negative outcomes, including potentially death," Pearl says. "We're able to brighten their lives, nourish their bodies, feed their souls, and let them know that they are cared for and part of a really big community of people who care for them."
Harris and Burtka say they get back from God's Love every bit as much as they give. "Providing meals for those who are unable to get to a restaurant or cook a meal themselves, just in principle is a wonderful way to help. But then when you go and see all of the volunteers and the kitchens, and you cook and package the meals yourself, and you deliver them … you can really actively see it being put into action," Harris says. "They're just a remarkable group of friendly, hard-working people. And it inspires us every time we're there."
Behind God's Love
Ata Aduna, client
There was a time when Ata Aduna spent his days taking care of others. He worked as a nursing assistant, caring for the disabled in a Bronx, New York, nursing home. Aduna loved his patients, and they were so fond of him that he earned the employee of the year distinction twice.
But after he retired in 2010, Aduna suddenly found that he needed to rely on others for his own care. His vision was faltering from glaucoma. His lower back hurt. He had diabetes, prostate cancer, and kidney disease severe enough to require a transplant. Shopping and cooking for himself had become too difficult. He couldn't stand long enough to make his own meals.
During one visit to the hospital for his kidney checkup, a staff member asked if he'd be interested in having meals delivered to his home. Aduna called the phone number she gave him, and in January 2017, he started getting weekly meal deliveries from God's Love We Deliver.
A God's Love nutritionist tailored Aduna's meals to his dietary restrictions -- low sugar for his diabetes, low fat to manage his lipid levels, and low sodium for his high blood pressure. "She told me what to eat, what not to eat, and the quantity. It was very helpful," he says. "The food is very nutritious, and it tastes good … I like it."
Michael Anthony, executive chef, Gramercy Tavern
When you've been named Best Chef in a city renowned for its culinary stars, you know you're doing something right. Michael Anthony is the James Beard Award-winning executive chef of the landmark Gramercy Tavern. For the last 6 years, he's also been a member of the God's Love We Deliver board of directors.
Anthony receives numerous requests from local charities, but the mission of God's Love struck a special chord with him: "It was important to me that the organization was not just thoughtful, but really adamant about paying attention to not only feeding or helping people in need, but also paying close attention to what they feed them. God's Love makes a very visible, tactile difference. They keep people out of hospitals. They save lives by providing essential nutrition. They bring physical contact to people who are lonely."
Anthony has been so impressed by the organization's work that he's brought some of his staff on board to help fundraise for them. Each November, a team of 20 to 30 Gramercy employees laces up their sneakers for the Race to Deliver, a 4-mile run through Central Park to benefit God's Love. In conjunction with the race, Gramercy sells a special seasonal cocktail called the Concord Crush and donates part of the proceeds from each drink.
Anthony has also volunteered in the charity's kitchen. "My wife and kids and I have participated in cooking volunteerism at God's Love, and that is a real source of pride for us," he says. "The kitchen smells good. It's well organized. And it's filled with friendly people."
He also spearheads a quarterly community table event in which he invites celebrities and well-known chefs to join him for a cooking demonstration. "Kyle MacLachlan was a recent guest, and he was able to bring some tastes of the wine he produces in his winery," Anthony says. "Lidia Bastianich has been there to provide great insight and stories. Amanda Freitag is a very active chef in the organization."
God's Love's motto, "Food is medicine," resonates with Anthony, who serves fresh, locally sourced foods in his own restaurant. "It underscores the fact that eating a healthy diet leads to a better life," he says. "We embody that in the parties we throw, in the fundraising we do. I see that impressively every day in the hard, fundamental work of that organization, saving people who are too sick to take care of themselves."
Bernie Williams, former professional baseball player, musician
Bernie Williams is perhaps best known as the legendary center fielder who helped lead the New York Yankees to four World Series championships and six pennants during his 16-year career. Some attendees at God's Love We Deliver's Love Rocks concerts have been surprised to discover that his talent also extends to the electric guitar.
"What most people don't know is that I went to a performing arts high school and I've been playing since I was 8 years old," Williams says. "I consider myself a musician who just happened to play baseball."
Onstage at the Love Rocks shows, Williams has played with a who's who of musical legends, including ZZ Top lead singer and guitarist Billy Gibbons, Grammy-winning blues artist Keb' Mo', and Ann Wilson of Heart. "I've played with people I never thought in my wildest dreams I'd play with," he says. "It's been such an incredible musical experience for me."
In the presence of these legends, Williams has more than held his own. New York Post columnist Chuck Arnold named him the "MVP" at last year's concert for demonstrating "that he has become a major-league musician" since his retirement from professional baseball in 2006.
Williams pours his soul into his annual performances at the God's Love concerts to raise money for its mission of providing nutritious meals to people with chronic illnesses. He came on board 2 years ago because he was "blown away" by the cause. "I do whatever I can to spread the news about this," he says. "It's been quite an honor to be part of an organization that has such an important task. I am aware of the reason why the organization exists and how important it is for the people who are relying on this service."
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