Plates were piled high at Christiana Care’s holiday luncheon at St. Patrick’s Center in Wilmington this week with all the fixings of a festive holiday meal — turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese, corn, applesauce, rolls and even home-baked cupcakes. By far, though, for Vivian Pitts, the best part of the meal was the fresh tossed salad.

Vivian Pitts enjoyed her fresh salad and a laugh with Dr. Matthew Burday.

“I love veggies,” said Pitts, wearing a festive jacket and striking red hat in the spirit of the occasion. “When I was growing up, we had a garden next to our house where we grew our own fresh vegetables, so we ate lots of healthy food. I take advantage of good vegetables for a strong body whenever I can.”

A team of about 20 Christiana Care physicians, nurses and social workers planned, provided, cooked, served and cleaned up from the holiday meal and presented gift bags filled with first aid kits and helpful information about community resources to each of the more than 200 luncheon guests.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are far from a daily staple for Wilmington’s most vulnerable residents. Located on the impoverished east side of Wilmington, St. Pat’s sits in what is classified as a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its lack of access to fresh food. Common health risks for this population include obesity, chronic illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension, and even premature death.

In addition to struggling with food insecurity — not knowing where the next meal will come from and little or no access to nutritious foods — those who rely on St. Pat’s also face housing, transportation, financial and unmet medical and behavioral health challenges. To make matters worse, many go through these tough times alone, without family connections — challenging in any season, but never more so than at the holidays and through the darkest days of winter.

Matthew Burday, D.O., FACP, associate program director of Christiana Care’s Internal Medicine Residency Program, was part of the team who traded in their stethoscopes for serving trays for the luncheons. He and his Christiana Care colleagues ensured that the guests had everything needed to enjoy their meal, from salad dressing to their favorite type of cupcake. Coming together as a community was particularly meaningful, he said, both for guests and for those who served.

Christiana Care colleagues prepared and served hundreds of meals to their neighbors at St. Patrick’s Center.

“Being able to be part of this luncheon probably means more to me than it does to the people who are receiving this meal,” he said, humbled by the gratefulness expressed by those enjoying the meal. “This is such a heartening experience. Being here provides exposure to a critical part of what Christiana Care is all about. In the end, it’s all about the relationship.”

Sister of Mercy Danielle Gagnon, RSM, recently named St. Pat’s new executive director, was touched by the relationships she witnessed at her first Christiana Care holiday luncheon.

“The love is in the details, and Christiana Care goes above and beyond, taking special care in the details,” she said. “The resources provided for today’s holiday luncheon give all of us at St. Pat’s a chance to come together, which is very special since we are, first and foremost, a community center with the emphasis on community. In the midst of this holiday season and throughout the year, our partnership with Christiana Care is a great opportunity.”

It’s a partnership that extends well beyond the holiday season. Three Wednesdays each month, Christiana Care volunteer teams prepare and serve bagged lunches at St. Pat’s, and Christiana Care social workers are embedded at the facility through a grant. Early in 2017, Christiana Care will expand its social work presence and assistance to homeless individuals with medical and behavioral needs.

James M. Ellison, M.D., MPH, Christiana Care’s Swank Foundation Endowed Chair in Memory Care and Geriatrics — who donned an apron and helped dish up many of the 200  meals on Monday — said the additional medical assistance will facilitate better care for homeless elders in our community.

“Homeless elders are an especially vulnerable group, struggling to survive under harsh conditions and often reluctant to seek medical care for health concerns that require treatment and monitoring in order to avoid significant and life-threatening complications,” said Dr. Ellison. “St. Pat’s is an extraordinary place. I can think of few programs where I’ve seen such a dedicated and empathetic group of people caring for a population in such need.”

Today’s holiday luncheon was a clear demonstration of the loving respite and support that St. Pat’s provides.”

Sandra Moody said that the Christiana Care holiday meal at St. Pat’s was a highlight of her holiday.

A joy to be involved

Unlike Pitts, who loves her salad, Christopher Glover admits he’s not a fan of most vegetables. For him, the ham was the highlight of the holiday meal. Thanks to CareVio Community Nurse Alicia Smalls, RN, Glover said he is at least learning the importance of cutting down on some of the unhealthy food choices that cause his blood pressure to climb.

“Christopher and I came up with a plan where he will start slow — give up one bag of chips a week to cut down on salt,” said Smalls. “He knows he will feel better if his blood pressure isn’t so high and his stomach isn’t upset. With little steps, our goal is to keep him out of the hospital.”

Christiana Care’s social work team also worked with Glover to help him secure Social Security benefits.

“They are my Christmas angels,” he said. “I have no family, and I don’t read or write all that well. They helped me a lot.”

One of those angels, Carmela Longobardi, MSW, spoke of the joy in seeing so many of her Christiana Care colleagues helping others and sharing the goodness of the holiday season with her St. Pat’s family.

“How could you not feel good to see the community come together at an event like this?,” she said. “We are called to be here. We are like family here at St. Pat’s — we know everyone by their first names.”

Craig talks with Sister Danielle Gagnon, RSM.

Despite being down on his luck, Craig, a Native American who chooses not to use a last name, was full of smiles as he left the table. The one-time chemical engineer fell on hard times when he had to pay off a second mortgage he took out to care for his aging and ailing parents at home.

“I promised my parents they would never go to a nursing home, and I was able to honor that promise,” he said. “I never expected to be in this situation as a result of it, I can tell you, but I would do it again to help them.”

Although he speaks four languages, Craig couldn’t find enough ways to express his gratitude to the Christiana Care team and to St. Pat’s for the delicious meal and warm welcome.

“Merci beaucoup! Dankeschön! Grazie! And Kala Christougenna!” he said, offering his new friends a thank you in French, German and Italian, and a Christmas greeting in Greek.

Maggie Bartash a peer counselor, and Dr. Omar Khan prepare salads for the St Patrick’s Center holiday lunch celebration.

“Serving our community in this way is as much a part of our mission as the clinical care we provide in our offices,” said Omar A. Khan, M.D., MHS, FAAFP, physician leader of the Primary Care & Community Medicine Service Line and medical director of Christiana Care’s Eugene du Pont Preventive Medicine & Rehabilitation Institute. “Interacting with our neighbors is how we live out The Christiana Care Way. It’s a joy to be involved here.”

Sandra Moody certainly felt the joy. The grandmother of seven admits she came to St. Pat’s hungry and hurting the morning of the holiday luncheon, but says the day turned out to be the “best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Christiana Care and St. Pat’s made my holiday,” she said. “Now I’m really in the spirit!”