A Hunger to Help
As a child, Nicholas Truong ’24 spent a lot of time observing food, even though he could not enjoy it as much as he wanted.
When Truong was a baby, he was diagnosed with Russell Silver Syndrome (RSS), a rare endocrine growth disorder that can, among other things, affect a child’s ability to eat. The syndrome presents with a multitude of health issues, including lack of growth, failure to thrive, and at the forefront, a severe lack of appetite. As a result, children with RSS often develop food aversions that can make it difficult to keep weight.
Truong struggled with aversions throughout his childhood and to overcome this, his parents would take him to the grocery store to teach him about different kinds of foods. His mom would walk through the aisles handing Truong different ingredients to observe and feel in his hands.
Over the years, Truong explains, he developed an innate sense of food and admiration for the cooking process. So when Truong was looking to get involved with his community last year, it’s no surprise he found his way back to food.
Truong was onboarding as a volunteer at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara last December when he learned about the JW House. Located near the Kaiser facility on Lawrence Expressway, JW House is a place of rest and self-care for individuals receiving medical care and families visiting loved ones in area hospitals.
Part of his role as a volunteer at Kaiser was to help JW House prepare for incoming guests. One night, he noticed the kitchen was empty and thought “What if there was a way to get it up and running again?”
That’s when Recipes for Relief was born. Truong recruited a group of Santa Clara students to cook and prepare meals for families staying at the JW House. Last year, Recipes for Relief prepared more than 40 home-cooked meals for people either undergoing treatment themselves or visiting family receiving treatment at Kaiser.
“I know that for a lot of families, going through a medical crisis is a lot of stress,” Truong says. “It’s also a lot of stress trying to go out and find food and rush back to the hospital to be by their family’s side.”
Running Recipes for Relief was no simple process. In addition to recruiting interested students and establishing the organization with the Center for Student Involvement, Truong and his team of four volunteers spent weeks organizing events, planning meals, and securing funding to pay for the food.
While Truong has a lot on his plate as a student, he enjoys bringing a sense of normalcy and care to the lives of people who are suffering. He hopes to attend medical school after graduation and says making meals for patients has allowed him to better understand the challenges people go through while receiving medical treatment.
“The first time preparing and serving meals was pretty eye-opening for me,” Truong says. “My medical experience up to that point was being a patient. I'm always used to being on the other end. Now, I'm on the service end.”
One of the most memorable moments for Truong was when a pediatric oncology patient came in for a meal. Knowing that he was making this child’s day a little bit easier through food was a humbling experience and made him proud of his organization.
With one year under his belt and support from CSI Director Tedd Vanadilok and a dedicated faculty advisor in Professor Phil Kesten, Truong hopes Recipes for Relief will continue to grow during his senior year.
“We intend to have Recipes for Relief become a broader public health project on campus,” Truong says. “It’s a great way for students to engage with local healthcare through medical hospitality and get experience working with community organizations that seek to improve healthcare access and quality.”
Recipes for Relief is collaborating with the Santa Clara Community Action Program (SCCAP) in January to become one of three medical and health projects.
One of the more stressful elements of running Recipes for Relief was securing funding, which Truong says is taken care of now. Thanks to a generous donation from Dr. Adrian House of HouseMD Plastics, a major community partner in health outreach, Recipes for Relief was able to make monthly meals for the JW House and will have enough funding through the end of the 2023-2024 school year.
However, Truong hopes the program continues long after he graduates from Santa Clara this year.
“We’re meeting people in their most vulnerable moments,” Truong says. “Being in a medical crisis could be super isolating for their families and it's just nice to show support through gestures, saying, ‘We’re here for you and we’re also thinking about you.’”