Melanie and Davasia enjoy a meal from Project Angel Heart.

When Davasia was 10 years old, her mother, Melanie, had to take her to the emergency room for breathing difficulties that medication didn’t fix.

It turned out that Davasia’s closed throat was a symptom of a rare autoimmune disorder that attacks the internal organs. Melanie was shocked to learn that her daughter needed dialysis three times a week.

Davasia required a special, low-sodium diet that she didn’t like and wouldn’t eat. But she needed good nutrition to build her strength for a kidney transplant.

Through a social worker, Melanie found Project Angel Heart, a volunteer organization that prepares medically tailored meals and delivers them to clients’ homes.

The meals were so tasty that Davasia started eating again and gaining the strength she had lost. In March, she had a successful kidney transplant and now has gotten back to being a kid again.

“We believe food is medicine,” said Sally Rothstein, Project Angel Heart’s Colorado Springs regional manager. “Since 1991, we’ve been delivering meals to people who have a life-threatening illness of some kind.”

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Project Angel Heart was founded in Denver by Charles Robbins, who wanted to help friends struggling with HIV/AIDS. The nonprofit soon grew to include Coloradans fighting cancer, heart disease and other severe illnesses. It expanded to Colorado Springs 14 years ago.

Project Angel Heart serves clients of all ages, and there are no income qualifications. Deliveries can continue as long as they are needed for people currently diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and documented difficulty preparing or accessing healthy meals.

Project Angel Heart has a team of dedicated chefs who prepare about 7,500 dietitian-developed meals a week in a Denver commercial-grade kitchen. Meals are packaged in trays that can be reheated in an oven or microwave.

“We have five main diets and about 18 to 20 modifications we can make,” Rothstein said. So a client who needs a heart-healthy diet can choose low-sodium meals, and someone who is going through chemotherapy and having difficulty swallowing can get a soft diet.

Meals for about 250 clients are brought to Colorado Springs once a week and delivered by volunteers from 10 a.m.-noon every Saturday.

“We have individuals, families, and even a van of church volunteers,” Rothstein said. “We provide an option for people outside the delivery area to come in twice a week and pick up meals, or we can deliver to a friend or family member within the delivery area.”

Local artists and kids decorate the brown paper bags in which the food is delivered, to the delight of recipients.

Each bag costs about $60 to put together. That adds up to about $5 million a year, which the organization raises through events and fundraising campaigns.

As part of the Give! Campaign this year, Project Angel Heart is partnering with Local Relic brewery for a meal bag decorating contest called Labels of Love. Entries are currently on display at Local Relic’s tasting room at the Carter Payne, 320 S. Weber St. Nine winners, who will be announced Dec. 3, will see their artwork on Local Relic beer labels.

Rothstein is proud to say that Project Angel Heart served 488,285 meals to 3,175 clients in the Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas. But what she’s most excited about is new research showing clients who receive medically tailored meals have better health outcomes and experience lower health care costs.

Using medical claims data from the Colorado All Payer Claims Database, Project Angel Heart conducted a study that looked at the health care costs of clients before, during and after they received meal deliveries.

Medically tailored meals led to a 13 percent decrease in hospital readmissions. While receiving the meals, people living with congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes spent less on hospital stays and had a 24 percent decrease in total medical costs.

“We love what we are discovering about just how effective the right nutrition can be,” Rothstein said. “It’s making a difference in people’s well-being and independence. When we are rallying around supporting good nutrition, eventually we’ll see communities that are healthier and thriving even more.”