By Pat Pratt
Even in the darkest of times, it cannot be overstated the power of a home-cooked meal.
While various studies have shown this to be true, perhaps there is no better example than in the actions of the “Dinner Divas,” a group of ladies from Troy, Glen Carbon and surrounding communities whose aim is to make the lives of sick children and their families a little brighter.
Since 2015, the group has been cooking for families at Ronald McDonald House in St. Louis, an organization which helps ill children undergoing treatment and their families by offering temporary lodging and other support. Dinner Divas coordinator Denise Nanney said the group is mostly retirees, who are friends and some family, with time on their hands and a desire to help others.
“We are retired and it’s one of those things where you need to fill a gap,” Nanney said. “We feel like we have finished our work, now we have time to reach out and help other people.” Personally, I feel like it’s karma. Do positive things and positive things will be returned to us.”
Through the Ronald McDonald House Meals from the Heat program, the Dinner Divas cook onsite in house kitchens for families away from home. Sometimes those treatments, which range from minor surgeries to treatments for devastating illnesses, can last days, weeks or even months.
Nanney said the first time she worked in the program, she left nearly in tears thinking of the suffering some of the children and their families endure. She described how one family she got to know saw their child recover after months of treatment, only to then learn their younger child was diagnosed with the same illness and would also see a lengthy hospital stay.
“I remember asking the father how everything is going and he said ‘it’s great, she just finished her last treatment.’ I was so excited, I said oh my gosh that’s wonderful,” Nanney said. “Then he said, ‘bubby states his treatment on Tuesday.’ Whatever condition the little girl had, they had just discovered their youngest son also had it. So they just finished her treatment and were going to start all over.”
Nanney says there is also much joy in what the Dinner Divas do. As the families and children spend most days at the hospital, the divas often never see the people they spend hours cooking for. The pandemic caused further separation, but in its wake those chance encounters are somewhat more frequent.
“About two weeks ago, a young Russian mother was there with her son,” Nanney said. “She had a translator app and she tapped me on the shoulder and showed me her phone. And it said, ‘I just want you to know my son had his surgery and he can walk.’ She said, ‘I just want to thank you so much for the food.’ It brought tears to all our eyes.”
The group’s efforts have also gone beyond the kitchen walls. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation the Diner Divas, like many in the culinary industry, saw their efforts rocked by a host of barriers. Unable to gather as a group due to or ply their cooking skills, the ladies turned to the struggling restaurant industry for help.
“During COVID, when we were not allowed to go over and cook, we still collected money and ordered food for them,” Nanney said. “We tried to use area restaurants, trying to support them when everything was crazy.”
Far from any quick and easy meal-kit type cooking, a sample of what the Dinner Divas prepare for the families is straight out of grandma’s kitchen. Fare includes roast turkey, roast pork loin or other main, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, coleslaw, homemade dinner rolls, homemade desserts and homemade soups.
The Dinner Divas in 2022 put together a cookbook with all their delicious recipes which is available for purchase. Some of those recipes were recently featured on the Ronald McDonald House global website. They are using any profits to further their culinary efforts, already buying a new freezer and other items for the Ronald McDonald House kitchen.
Dan Harbaugh, Ronald McDonald House Charities of St. Louis President, said the Meals from the Heart program is one of the most important ways in which the families staying there can feel at home.
“One of the most important ways we offer a home-away-from-home to guest families is through a nightly meal at all three of our local Ronald McDonald Houses,” Harbaugh said. “We are beyond grateful to individuals, families, and groups who dedicate their evenings to providing a hot meal. Because of their support, seriously ill or injured children and their families have one less worry during a difficult time,”
He thanked the Dinner Divas personally for all their hard work through the years.
“The Dinner Divas have served meals to hundreds of families throughout the years,” Harbaugh said. “This premiere Meals from the Heart volunteer group often picks up extra shifts to create easy-to-make casseroles and have even written a cookbook to raise money to purchase a new freezer at RMHC.”
“We are beyond grateful for their continued support in creating an inviting atmosphere for our guests,” he said.