Dinners With Love Brings Joy to Patients and Families in Hospice Care

By LUCY TOWNEND

Lucy Townend/The Middlebury Campus
Caroline Costello handing off a large classic mediterranean sub and a salad to a volunteer from Dinners with Love.

Every Thursday night across Vermont, volunteers deliver hundreds of meals to hospice patients and their caregivers with Dinners with Love, a Brandon-based non-profit organization.    

Dinners with Love has a simple model that can be easily replicated. Patients and their families order food from local restaurants through the organization. Then, on Thursday nights, volunteers are given necessary directions and instructions to pick up and deliver the meals. Some locations also operate through hospice workers, and they often offer additional care and comfort for families.

Most volunteers spend up to an hour with the recipients, talking and laughing with them. “I like to tell jokes, liven things up a little bit,” said Frank Finnerty, a volunteer and member of the Board of Directors. “It’s kind of fun— bringing people meals and talking to them, finding out about their lives and being part of their last days.”

“I just love doing something nice for people in this world,” echoed Susie Leonard, a longtime volunteer. 

Dinners with Love was founded by Sheri Sullivan in 2009. Sullivan, former owner of Sheri’s Diner and Plan-It Sheri Catering in Brandon, began her hospice career in 2002 doing what she loved — cooking for families and eventually their patients. As she completed her training and sat with patients in the last moments of their lives, she began brainstorming a model of bringing meals from restaurants to patients in hospice care and their families. Her friends were so enthusiastic about the idea that they helped her come up with the means to begin Dinners with Love almost immediately. After reaching out to restaurants in Brandon such as Café Provence and Cattails Restaurant, Dinners with Love was launched shortly after. The project became a 501(c) organization in 2010.

The organization emphasizes that meals offer an opportunity to spend time surrounded by loved ones in the last moments of one’s life. For families, it offers a respite from worrying about preparing meals, and it allows for patients to return to their “foodie,” restaurant-attending days. For some couples in the program, it acts as a date night; recipients dress in their best clothes, lay out tablecloths and light candles. 

“It means something different for everyone,” Executive Director Sarah Audet explained, “in the same way that the end of life means something different for everyone.”

Audet has worked as the Executive Director for Dinners with Love since 2017 and manages the intricacies of running the nonprofit. When a close family member passed away in the spring of 2017, Audet remembers family members gathering after work for the week preceding his death and sharing meals together. 

“(I realized) how important it is to bring families together and how important it is to have the support of the community as well,” Audet said. It was this period in her life that drew her to Dinners with Love. “Any time I have an opportunity to connect directly with the families in our program,” Audet added, “that’s when I know I’m exactly where I need to be.”

Others also spoke of the importance of food as a way of connecting with family and friends. “You remember a dish you have at a restaurant because of that moment,” said Dave Laferriere-Hall, chef and owner of Coriander on Washington Street in Middlebury. The restaurant’s Creative Director and Co-owner Jennifer Sabourin agreed. 

“I knew right away that I wanted to do Dinners with Love,” she said, citing memories of large family dinners at holidays that brought everyone together. 

Caroline Costello, of Costello’s Market in Marbleworks, also talked of large family dinners on trips back to Italy. Coriander and Costello’s have opened their entire menus to Dinners with Love.

Those involved in Dinners with Love spoke of the generosity of the Middlebury community and other towns in Vermont. “I always knew that Middlebury was a very special place,” Audet said, referring to the volunteers, hospice workers and restaurants involved in the program. Sabourin echoed the sentiment, saying Coriander is “going to keep on doing what we’re doing because we love it, serving great food to a community that we’re so fond of.”

The organization involved even more of the Middlebury community through their Dinners with Extra Love initiative, currently in its second year. Inspired by cards that are sent with packages to soldiers, this initiative allows for members of the community to write anonymous Valentine’s Day cards to patients and their families.

Lucy Townend/The Middlebury Campus
Frank Finnerty delivering Malaysian mussels and garlic herb salmon from Coriander.

Audet emphasized the “poetic connection” that Valentine’s Day offers in terms of love and companionship and talked of the joy that it brought to patients and families.

She also spoke of plans to further expand the program. In five years, Audet believes Dinners with Love will be able to serve every hospice center in Vermont; in ten, she hopes to establish a program in “every state in the union,” emphasizing that the program is easy to replicate. “I just want to be serving everyone right now,” she said, admitting that expansion is the most challenging aspect of her job.

Audet, a graduate of Middlebury College, also offered insight for students who may want to work for nonprofits in the future. She believes that a liberal arts education offers the best preparation for nonprofits, since it allows students to explore a variety of interests and determine what they’re passionate about. Nonprofits allow for employees to use skills such as effective leadership, communication and problem solving, offering daily chances to be strategic. Audet also explained that there are two ways for college students to volunteer: either as a meal delivery driver or by being involved in restaurant outreach.

When Audet was asked how working with the organization has changed her, she paused. “It gives me a greater appreciation for living life more in the present,” she said, pointing out that it taught her to cherish times with friends and family. “There’s no way to put a finer point on how short life can be than to spend time in the hospice realm.”

Finnerty also expressed the reality about working with hospice patients. “It’s nothing like you think it is. It’s just people. They’re sick, but they’re carrying on their life like they always have,” Finnerty said. “They’re just people, just at a different stage than other people.”

However, Audet celebrates life every day with her work. “Hospice care is as much about living as it is about dying,” she said with a smile, “and knowing that someone is well supported at the end of their life ameliorates that sadness.”

Lucy Townend/The Middlebury Campus
Sarah Audet, Executive Director of Dinners with Love, at Coriander.

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Dinners With Love Brings Joy to Patients and Families in Hospice Care