Home Cook Hero and Volunteer Stories

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows New Jersey (IOOFNJ) has been a longtime supporter of the Howie’s House mission.

IOOFNJ generously committed to a multi-year sponsorship of the Howie’s House’s shuttle program

Former grandmaster, late heart transplant recipient and wonderful friend Harold Delhagen connected our two missions many years ago, and since, IOOFNJ has made a real difference in the lives of transplant families.

They supported our initial capital campaign to help build the Howie’s House and open our doors by underwriting one of our guest rooms. They’ve helped transplant families who couldn’t afford our nightly fee with a contribution to our Adopt-A-Family program. Additionally, IOOFNJ has volunteered on many occasions in our kitchen to provide warm, home-cooked meals to our guests in the evenings as part of our Home Cook Heroes program.

Most recently, they generously committed to a multi-year sponsorship of our shuttle program to help bring transplant patients and their family members back and forth from Philadelphia hospitals and the Howie’s House.

This contribution to our mission helps provide a much-needed service to our guests so they don’t have to navigate an unfamiliar city alone or pay expensive parking fees while caring for a loved one undergoing the transplant process.

Our shuttle helps bring guests back and forth from Philadelphia’s transplant centers and the Howie’s House

In 2019 alone, their support helped us travel over 16,000 miles to provide more than 1,100 trips to and from Philadelphia hospitals and the Howie’s House!

IOOFNJ is an organization based on the foundations of Friendship, Love and Truth, and seeks to make our world a better one to live in through charitable work on various projects in their community.

We are so grateful for their support and look forward to serving transplant families with them in the future!

Theresa had considered herself knowledgeable about organ and tissue donation after seeing how it worked as a respiratory therapist, but when her co-worker’s granddaughter passed away and became an organ donor, she was inspired to learn more about the process.

Shea sitting by the pier
Shea became an organ donor when she passed away

After learning about the Howie’s House through a Gift of Life presentation, she and her family held a fundraiser to support our mission to care for transplant families. They also signed up to participate in our Home Cook Heroes program under the team name “Team Shea” as a tribute to her co-worker’s granddaughter.

“We had such a great time cooking meals for these families…and we’ve been volunteering ever since!” Theresa says.

Since her team’s initial visit in 2017, they’ve been back several times and have earned an All-Stars a plate on our wall.

Joining Theresa in our kitchen are her children and her grandkids. They prepare comforting meals like shepherd’s pie and meatballs and ziti. Sometimes they serve fun, interactive meals like “Walk-Around Tacos” where guests can create their own taco salads in a Frito’s bag.

Along with dinner, Team Shea brings games and gives guests a chance to win items like puzzle books, decks of cards, paperback books, or candy.

“We figured some of these items could make their time waiting a little easier,” Theresa adds. “No matter how bad a day they may have had, the Howie’s House guests are so nice and appreciative. It’s amazing.”

Team Shea also provides dessert!

“One time, a guest asked me if he could bring some extra cookies to his wife in the hospital to cheer her up,” Theresa says. “It amazed me that something Team Shea did—something so little—would make his wife’s time in the hospital a little bit better.”

Team Shea sitting in the Howie's House Adirondack chair
Theresa’s grandchildren often volunteer with her

Volunteers like Team Shea are such a vital part of our mission. Their hard work and dedication in our kitchen help us welcome transplant families home and lessen their burden of worrying about what to eat or where to get it after a long day.

Theresa hopes other people will become inspired to learn about the Howie’s House and its Home Cook Heroes program.

“People should go to the Howie’s House to see what it’s like and donate their time,” she says. “The staff tries so hard to make the guests feel as comfortable as possible. It’s even better than I imagined it to be.”

Gift of Life Donor Program and MTF Biologics have partnered together for more than 20 years to bring the gift of life-changing tissues to patients throughout the U.S. and beyond. Now, MTF Biologics is spending time in the Howie’s House kitchen preparing meals for transplant families as part of our Home Cook Heroes program.

“The Howie’s House is one of the best ideas Howard Nathan has ever had,” says Martha Anderson, Executive Vice President of Donor Services at MTF Biologics. She has served on the Gift of Life Donor Program governing board for many years and supported the Howie’s House from its conception. MTF Biologics has underwritten the Howie’s House’s 4th Floor Lounge, and supported its annual Kidney Open Golf Outing and Donor Dash.

The team at MTF Biologics loves volunteering to help care for our families

Martha recently brought her executive team to visit the Howie’s House and they decided they wanted to get more involved. “It’s also an amazing place for our staff to give back, learn about donation, and continue supporting Gift of Life,” Martha explains. “We also really want to get a plate on the wall!”

The plates on the wall in our kitchen celebrate our Home Cook Heroes All-Stars, groups who volunteer at least 12 times a year (typically about once a month) to help take care of our families.

“The Howie’s House is an amazing home away from home for transplant patients and families. The staff is committed to doing everything they can to take care of them,” Martha says. “Everyone from MTF Biologics who comes down to cook loves it, feels humbled, and appreciates the opportunity to give back.”

Not only does MTF Biologics come in to cook, but sometimes, they provide entertainment as well! MTF Biologic’s resident band, The Bone Tones, led by President and CEO Joe Yaccarino, came to perform during dinner one night and was invited back to play at the Howie’s House’s annual President’s Reception.

“They were really happy to come to the Howie’s House and play,” Martha says.

Guests enjoying entertainment provided by MTF Biologics’ resident band, The Bone Tones

MTF Biologics is well on their way to joining our Home Cook Heroes All-Stars with a plate of their own on the wall. They’ve already come in 10 times this year and have prepared Mexican and Italian dinners as well as baked goods and brunch. We are so thankful for their commitment to our mission and look forward to see what they whip up next!

Something very special happened in the Howie’s House kitchen this summer.

Bryson and his family with Mason’s parents in the Howie’s House kitchen

Two families not only came together to cook a warm, home-cooked meal for our guests, but to also celebrate the life of toddler Mason Hess, an organ donor who saved four lives.

Mason Hess and his parents, Kellie and Adam

The two families were Mason’s own, and the family of the little boy who received Mason’s lungs, Bryson Palmer.

Bryson Palmer, the recipient of Mason’s lungs, celebrates Mason’s life

Kellie and Adam Hess regularly volunteer at the Howie’s House as Home Cook Heroes as a way to keep Mason’s memory alive. When Bryson Palmer and his family flew from their home in Ohio to visit the Hess’ in New Jersey, everyone thought it would be a great idea to cook a meal together at the Howie’s House. The only volunteer date available during their visit was Mason’s birthday.

“It was such a moving experience to cook with the family of one of Mason’s recipients and see how far both families have come,” Kellie says. “We are so happy that this wonderful little boy is healthy. We felt such a bond with him.”

Kellie Hess, Mason’s mother, hugs Bryson, the recipient of her son’s lungs

When Bryson was five months old, he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer and received 18 months of treatment, including chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, radiation, and immuno-therapy. Unfortunately, he suffered a rare side effect—progressive scarring of the lungs—and required a double lung transplant. Bryson and his family traveled over 500 miles from Ohio to St. Louis, Missouri where he waited for 12 weeks in the PICU before he received his precious gift of life from Mason.

Bryson and his family traveled from Ohio to New Jersey to meet and say thank you to Mason’s family

It’s been six years since Bryson received his transplant and he has remained cancer free. He’s also the healthiest he’s ever been.

“It feels like Mason’s family and my family were meant to be in each other’s lives,” Katie, Bryson’s mother, says. “We at least hoped we’d be able to say thank you to the family who donated their loved one’s organs. We never expected to have such a close relationship, but now we’re all family.”

Bryson and Mason’s sister, Faith, pose with a photo of Mason

The Palmers’ stay as Home Cook Heroes was the first time they’d ever been to a Howie’s House-like facility. “During Bryson’s transplant journey, we traveled over 500 miles from home,” Katie says. “We were told we had to stay there but had nowhere to go. I slept in the hospital with Bryson and kept necessities in my car in the parking garage. My husband traveled back and forth from Ohio so he could continue working. We eventually did get an apartment, but there was no pantry, no meal offered every night, and we were completely on our own. It’s amazing that the Howie’s House is a place to call home for so many people.” While cooking at the Howie’s House, Bryson and his family were able to meet two other double lung recipients.

“It’s so nice to see this community,” Katie adds. “It would’ve been nice to have other families to talk to.”

The Hess and Palmer families in the Howie’s House Legacy Garden

We are so proud and humbled that our kitchen was a warm meeting place for such a meaningful moment between a donor and recipient family. These families are a true testament to how organ donation changes lives—and it was all possible because Adam and Kellie said yes to donation.

Through the generosity and support of our contributors, Gift of Life Howie’s House is able to provide a “home away from home” for transplant patients and their families.

Click here to donate today!

In August of 2014, Carol McCloud’s son, Ryan, became an organ donor. At 20 years old, Ryan saved four lives. Until her son’s passing, Carol and her family didn’t know much about donation, but she says it’s been a blessing to her and her family, helping them get through her son’s sudden passing.

The McCloud’s are residents of Fishtown, a neighborhood just north of Gift of Life Donor Program and the Howie’s House, so it was easy for Carol to begin volunteering with our organization. She began with the Donor Dash, and soon after, she visited the Gift of Life website to learn about other volunteer opportunities. Carol also noticed signs on the highway for the Howie’s House.

After some thought, she and her family decided that on the first anniversary of her son’s passing, they’d do a food drive for the Howie’s House. They’ve been doing one ever since.

The McCloud family fills up their entire minivan with food and other household supplies for guests here at the Howie’s House. Family, friends, and small businesses in the neighborhood like grocery stores and restaurants all contribute; relatives and friends also advertise at work. “A big chain of people have made this drive so successful,” Carol says.

The before and after care transplant patients and their families receive at the Howie’s House motivates Carol to keep giving. “Being able to help others the way people helped my son is important to me,” she says. “Volunteering and spending time at the Howie’s House allows me to see first-hand what they do for families and allows me to celebrate my son and spread his story.”

Carol and her family also volunteer as Home Cook Heroes on or around Ryan’s birthday.

Thank you, McCloud family, for selflessly supporting our mission and transplant families!

The ladies of Rutgers Gang have kept their college friendships especially strong. They began volunteering as Home Cook Heroes when the Howie’s House opened in 2011, and have continued their commitment to serving transplant families in honor of a member whose relative passed after while waiting for a multi-organ transplant and another whose daughter received two kidney transplants.

At least once a month, these women come together not only to catch up, but to prepare and serve a warm meal for our guests. “Some people don’t realize the stress on caretakers is very hard,” Barbara, one of the members, says. “It’s good to sit down, relax, and enjoy something other than a boxed meal.”

For one of their first meals, they prepared a big lasagna dinner. However, when they found out most other Home Cook Heroes groups were serving Italian-style meals, they started to change things up. Since then, they’ve served breakfast for dinner, Mexican meals, and have even barbequed outside.

“We’ve got our routine down to a science,” Barbara says.

After they finish cooking, the ladies will often go out to dinner themselves, bringing their husbands and boyfriends along with them.

“It’s fun to get together with my friends,” Barbara says. “It’s also fun to do something for others. We all love cooking and it’s something we can all do. The Howie’s House is so life-changing. It feels like home.”

We’re so grateful these women have found a home here at the Howie’s House and that by volunteering with us, they’re honoring important people in their lives.

We’ll see you next time, Rutgers Gang!

Ed Galarza’s been a volunteer with Gift of Life Donor Program since he received a life-saving liver transplant in 2003. As soon as the Howie’s House opened in 2011, he started volunteering here, too. He started out cooking dinners for our guests, checking them in at the Front Desk, and driving them to and from transplant hospitals for their doctor’s appointments. Seven years later, Ed’s still hanging out with us. He volunteers twice a week assisting with upkeep around the facility, performing maintenance work, and is a back-up shuttle driver.

Ed was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in the Bronx, and now lives in New Jersey. He has 2 children, 3 grandchildren, and is a retired Army veteran. He was first diagnosed with liver disease in 1999, but didn’t start to get sick until 2003. Unfortunately, there was no Howie’s House for him or his family to stay in during his transplant journey. His wife had to travel to and from the hospital by herself. He understands the importance of having a safe place to stay during such a difficult journey.

“The Howie’s House is very important,” he says. “It’s all about helping people in need.”

Ed is motivated to give back to everyone who has helped him along his own transplant journey. “I volunteer here to give back to the wonderful people who work for this organization, for my second chance at life, and for those who worked their butts off to help me get where I am today,” he says. “I get more than I give when I’m here. Being in the Howie’s House makes me feel better.”

Ed also enjoys giving back to others who are on their own transplant journeys. “I really like talking with the guests I meet. I can relate to them,” he says. “I’ve been there. I know what they’re going through and what they will go through.”

We’re so thankful for you, Ed. You help make the Howie’s House such a wonderful place!

For several years now, my family and friends have come together at Gift of Life Howie’s House to cook and serve guests a special, home-cooked meal …

We choose to be Home Cook Heroes because we know what these families are going through. And we do it because we want to honor our own hero, our son Gavin, on his birthday.

Gavin had a febrile seizure that led to cardiac arrest in April of 2013. He was 5 1/2 years old. His kidneys were the only viable organs able to be donated — and both of them went to a man in his 40s.

Helping others is, to me, one of the best ways to honor Gavin. – Kate Leong

It meant so much to us to donate Gavin’s kidneys at the end of his life, and we feel joy over and over as we help families staying at the Howie’s House. They come from all over the world, and the Howie’s House serves as their “home away from home” — and so much more.

 

-Kate Leong

 

 

 

Comcast Cares Day is a worldwide initiative that brings together thousands of Comcast employees, their families, friends and networks from around the world to volunteer and make change happen in local communities.

Over a two day span, volunteers from Comcast’s Tax Accounting team worked hard to make a difference at the Howie’s House by assisting with special projects like painting, repairs, planting flowers and gardening, cleaning, and cooking meals for the families in residence! Volunteers even utilized their artistic skills by painting a beautiful butterfly mural in the lower level of the Howie’s House.

We are thankful to the Comcast volunteers for their time, passion and dedication to the Gift of Life Howie’s House mission!

Is your company looking to partner with a nonprofit organization?

Through volunteerism, sponsorships, grants and program support, hundreds of corporations like Comcast have partnered with Gift of Life Howie’s House to support transplant patients and their families. In return, corporations receive unique recognition and brand visibility through our various communications and social media platforms as well as opportunities for employee team building activities and ways to engage and reconnect with clients.

Gift of Life Howie’s House invites you to join this growing group of corporate partners – who help provide a “home away from home” to transplant families. If your business or corporation is interested in supporting programs, events or other initiatives at Gift of Life Howie’s House, we would be happy to help build an impactful partnership.

For more information contact Sara Cohen, Development Manager at scohen@giftoflifefamilyhouse.org or call 267-546-9812.

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