Brothers Band Together for Those in Need

Bill Birtle

“There’s always someone worse off than you.”

That’s the mantra that Brother Timothy Radtke, Worshipful Master at William Elkins Lodge No. 271, Philadelphia, likes to repeat to himself.

That’s why when he learned about the Gift of Life Family House and its Home Cooked Heroes program, he knew he wanted his brothers to participate.

The Gift of Life House serves as a “home away from home” for those who travel to Philadelphia for transplant-related care. The Home Cooked Heroes program provides daily meals for patients and families through food or monetary donations from civic groups and lodges. Prior to COVID-19, groups of volunteers would come prep and cook the food from scratch in the on-site kitchen at the house.

“It’s one less thing for the patients and their families to worry about,” Timothy said. “Our guys make sure they are doing their part in giving back to those who are going through a hard time.”

In the past year, lodge support has provided meals for over 1,040 families at the house, and 11 future meal dates are planned, said Genevieve Moore, a guest service liaison for the Gift of Life Family House. The largest group to commit to the program is the Masonic Blood+Organ Donor Program, led in part by Brother Bill Soloway, himself a transplant recipient and a member of the advisory board. Bill is mainly responsible for getting the word out to the individual lodges to participate.

“They [the families] are appreciative because we’re able to provide a fresh meal for them,” Genevieve said. “After spending all day at the hospital, words can’t express how much it means to them not to have to make dinner. They can come back, relax and eat together after a stressful day.”

Brother Bill Birtle and his wife, Jean, stayed at the house for over a month when Bill, a member of Perseverance Lodge No. 21, Harrisburg, had a liver transplant. They were very grateful for the support from the lodges. “You always knew you’d have something warm to eat,” Jean said. “It was very comfortable, wonderful.”

Brother Ariel Gonzalez, Lodge No. 2, Philadelphia, said his lodge has been volunteering with the program since 2018, in addition to other philanthropic activities. “We served meals two years prior to the pandemic, and we just donated meals the last two years with COVID-19, since guests are immunocompromised, and we can’t come into the facility,” he said. “We always have a good turnout. People really enjoy getting in the kitchen. They are always asking, ‘When we are going to do this again?’”

Under normal operations, groups come on site to prepare dinner or brunch. Volunteers have use of four cooking stations, pots and pans, baking sheets and utensils. They are only responsible for bringing the ingredients, Genevieve said.

“We see groups come in who prepare varying degrees of meals, from the very simple – like pasta and meatballs – to Asian-inspired dishes and stir frys,” Genevieve said. “We leave the meal planning up to the individual groups. We only coordinate our expectations and sanitation guidelines. We do require groups to fill out an ingredient form with basic information or a copy of the recipe. Since COVID, we are strongly encouraging groups to sign up to drop off food, send catering or make a donation, but in order to get the true experience, arranging a drop-off is the preferred method. You can still have that bonding experience even if you’re not preparing something from scratch for people.”

For Timothy, there’s no more rewarding experience than hearing family members come down the stairs into the dining area, relieved that they don’t have to cook a meal or figure out what to eat. “We also have real chefs in our fraternity and lodge who help us make certain things,” he said. “We follow everything that the nutritionist tells us with what to cook or add or not add.”

During the pandemic, Pennsylvania Masons have really risen to fill the gap with providing meals, Bill said. “Things slowed down with COVID, but that didn’t stop people from needing life-saving transplants,” he said. “Lodges stepped up to meet the demand. The house was suffering because people could not come in and cook, but we could cook elsewhere and have the meals delivered.”

Ariel added, “We try to expose our members so they can see the work that Gift of Life does, to engage in fellowship and also to do good for the community. We really enjoy the time we participate there.”

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