Project Chicken Soup brings comfort by the bowl

The food is superb! You can taste the love and care.

I want to thank you for providing me with a beacon for my faith in good people.

I do so love the joy, peace and happiness your organization brings to my life. Thank you.

The notes are short, direct and never signed. They come from all over Los Angeles, from the South Los Angeles tenements to the San Fernando Valley suburbs. Their authors differ in age, ethnicity and religion, but have at least one thing in common: They all live with HIV/AIDS.

Their gratitude is directed at Project Chicken Soup, an L.A.-based nonprofit whose volunteers gather twice a month to cook nutritious, kosher meals and deliver them, free of charge, to the doors of clients across the city. The organization’s goal is to provide nechama, or comfort, to those in need.

“When you are diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, you often withdraw within yourself, and sometimes your family and friends might have a negative reaction to you,” said Paul Chitlik, president of Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services/Project Chicken Soup. “What we do is we show that they are still part of the Jewish community by delivering kosher food that might remind them of their families in a better time. What Jew doesn’t feel comfort when having a bowl of chicken soup?”

For those whose families live too far away to care for them, he added, the group’s door-to-door service also offers a welcome chance for human contact.

As several clients testify, the nourishment volunteers deliver is more than stomach-deep: Your services feed my soul with love as well as keep me from hunger.

The experience is just as rewarding for the volunteers themselves, many said, some of whom have returned faithfully every other Sunday, year after year.

Among the 40 to 45 volunteers who typically show up each session are retired grandparents, high school students from places like Harvard-Westlake and Campbell Hall and college students from UCLA, which once sent their entire women’s volleyball team to lend a hand in the kitchen. Synagogue groups and b’nai mitzvah boys and girls work side by side with charity-minded locals of all races and creeds, who just want to help.

“Cooking food for people is the most direct form of community service you can do,” Chitlik said. “You cook, that day it gets to the house — still warm — and people eat it. You provide something that people need and that they will use right away. It’s very satisfying.”

That’s how Century City resident Eve Lasensky feels, who, at 89, has been cooking with Project Chicken Soup twice a month for the past 15 years.

Lasensky doesn’t know anyone with HIV/AIDS, but she wanted to contribute to the cause in a more hands-on way than by simply donating money.

“It’s such a rewarding thing to do,” she said. “It’s all wholesome food, and it’s all done with such love. Everybody there does it because they really want to be there. It makes my day.”

Clients have noticed the enthusiasm of people like Lasensky:

I’m so glad that there are wonderful volunteers like you. You are a Godsend!

The idea for Project Chicken Soup first began to simmer in 1989, when a group of volunteers calling themselves Nechama started to prepare and distribute baskets of kosher food to people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles. Chitlik, who has been with the nonprofit in different capacities for the last decade, said the group formed to fill a need in the community — organizations like Project Angel Food and Meals on Wheels weren’t delivering kosher fare.

“We saw that there was a gap there, because there was a significant number of Jewish people with HIV or AIDS,” he said. “We saw a hole in services, and we were the only ones who filled that.”

Still the only regional provider of kosher meals to the HIV/AIDS community, Project Chicken Soup now gathers at the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen on Fairfax Avenue and cooks for about 120 clients per session, with a waiting list to boot. Last year, the group involved more than 1,200 volunteers who spent over 10,500 hours preparing and delivering nearly 8,000 meals.

Recipients don’t have to be Jewish to qualify for meal deliveries, which usually include three complete entrĂ©es, two 32-ounce containers of soup (one always being the requisite chicken soup), two vegetable side dishes, fresh fruit, a breakfast package and a week’s supply of nutritional supplements.

Special holiday menus also feature seasonal treats. On Purim, volunteers bake hamantaschen. For Passover, they kosher the kitchen and deliver gefilte fish.

The group’s pervasive emphasis on comfort — both physical and spiritual — has seemingly struck a chord. Some clients write in to voice their appreciation for a service they can’t do for themselves: I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated receiving my first delivery last Sunday. The food was really great and since I have little energy and failing health, it was a real treat.

Others write to share personal victories: I am in a much better position now both with health and finances and I’ve decided to leave the program. I cannot thank you enough for your warmth and dedication.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many Jews in Los Angeles live with HIV/AIDS, Chitlik said, since the county doesn’t keep track of religious information. But he noted that the Jewish community in recent years has taken steps to be more inclusive to this population.

“I think the community has opened its arms to help people come back,” he said. “At first, 20 or 30 years ago when the epidemic started, there were a lot of taboos around it. But now, almost everybody in the community has been touched by it — you know somebody who died, something like that. It’s been personalized.”

Project Chicken Soup has been recognized for its role in promoting “food as medicine” for people living with a life-threatening illness. Last summer, the group was chosen from 45 organizations nominated by members of Congress to receive the national 2007 Victory Against Hunger Award. Project Chicken Soup was nominated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).