Every Friday, Mike La Brasca loads a few meals into the back of his car. They’re hot, packed in to-go containers, and their savory aromas drift from the backseat.
“The meals today look good!” La Brasca says.
Today’s menu includes steak and a colorful Mardi Gras king cake for dessert. The dinners, though, aren't for him.
La Brasca is one of dozens of volunteers for The Joy Bus. Every week, he and others hand-deliver restaurant-quality meals to homebound cancer patients throughout the Valley. But the volunteers also say hello, and sometimes sit down to chat with the meals' recipients. As its name implies, the organization’s goal is to deliver a little joy to people who need it.
“It is literally a visit from a friend with really nice food,” said Jennifer Caraway, founder of The Joy Bus, explaining that it is not meant to be a sustainability program, so much as a friendly once-a-week treat.
Caraway started The Joy Bus in 2011 after her friend Joy Seitz-Butz was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“[Joy] had everything she needed. She had food, she had a super-rad support system,” Caraway said. “But my background is in restaurants, so my only way I knew how to help give her comfort was with food.”
Caraway began a routine of making meals and bringing them to her friend. But soon enough, she had what she describes as an “epiphany.”
“I just decided there’s probably a lot of people like Joy that just don’t have that support system,” Caraway said.
She began making plans to cook more meals for other people battling cancer. Seitz-Butz died shortly after Caraway filed the paperwork to establish the nonprofit in her honor. In the ensuing months, Caraway followed through with her plan, bringing dinners to two other cancer patients.
Four years later, she was still at it, with the help of a handful of volunteers. They were delivering about a dozen meals per week, and Caraway was beginning to outgrow her home kitchen. So in 2016, Caraway opened The Joy Bus Diner, a colorful brunch spot on Shea Boulevard. The restaurant doubles as a source of financial support for the charity and as a place to prepare the meals.
The Joy Bus now distributes about 50 meals per week made in-house with ingredients donated by local farms, or cooked by partner restaurants. The nonprofit has a roster of more than 60 volunteers, including those who work shifts in the diner, organizers who manage special events, and drivers who make home deliveries, like La Brasca.
La Brasca started volunteering with The Joy Bus about three years ago, just after his own cancer diagnosis. He was looking for a charitable way to support other cancer patients. He was drawn to The Joy Bus because it offered him a chance to meet people face-to-face and form some new friendships, even if many of those friendships might be under melancholy circumstances, he said.
“We’re in an unfortunate club together,” La Brasca said. “But there’s nothing like getting together with someone who knows the fear and the darkness of the whole thing.”
Darkness, La Brasca said, is something that comes along with cancer. “But it’s a mind game,” he said. He attributes living more than three years beyond his initial diagnosis to God, great doctors, and “being fiercely positive.”
The Joy Bus deliveries, he said, allow him to spread his optimism. Even as he went through radiation and chemotherapy, La Brasca took time to deliver meals.
Caraway said she is thrilled her volunteers have brought so much passion to the program.
“My idea was just food,” Caraway said. “The volunteers are the ones that turned it into a companionship service as well.”
On La Brasca’s delivery route this Friday, the first patient he stops to visit isn’t home to answer the door.
“It’s too bad,” La Brasca says. He and the man have become friends, and La Brasca looks forward to sitting down to talk with him every week.
Another delivery, a few miles away, is Celia Prince, a patient he hasn’t met before.
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Prince looks tired when she answers the door. These last few months have been “really rough,” she says. Now this week, she was mentally prepared for a round of treatment, but her doctor told her at the last minute she wasn’t well enough.
The once-a-week meals from The Joy Bus are a big help though, she says. “A lot of times I don’t feel like doing much.”
La Brasca tells her he’s happy to meet her. “You’re going to get through it. I’m going to get through it,” he tells her. “Stay strong.”
The Joy Bus Diner. 3375 East Shea Boulevard; 602-595-5884.
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.