Rafael Figueroa, 48, suffers from stage-four colon and liver cancer, Wagner’s disease, pancreatic cysts and valley fever. But despite his ailing health, Rafael smiles every Friday at the sight of Jennifer Caraway and her free, home-cooked meal.
Caraway is the president of the Joy Bus, a non-for-profit organization she founded offering free, hand-delivered, home-cooked food to home-bound cancer patients. The Joy Bus started in 2011 after Caraway witnessed the struggles her friend Joy went through battling cancer, which killed her in February.
“It was something I was doing for her before she passed,” Caraway says, “and I just realized while doing it there are a lot of people out there that needed help as well.”
Rafael became a Joy Bus recipient after an insurance agent told his family about the service, says Mindy Figueroa, Rafael’s daughter.
“Every Friday, [Jennifer] would bring a healthy meal, and my dad loves it,” Figueroa says.
Her family struggled to locate healthy food recipes online, and Caraway’s meals served as a way to both educate and relieve stress.
“Literally, it’s a blessing; it’s one less day we have to worry and figure out what we’re going to have my dad eat,” Figueroa says. “It’s something to look forward to, and even though he’s suffering you can see a smile come up every Friday.”
The Joy Bus serves a need that isn’t facilitated by anyone else, says Lynne McGowan, a cancer case manager who sits on the Joy Bus’s board of directors.
“There are hospice services for people with cancer; there is Meals on Wheels that charges people for those services, but Joy Bus is a unique service, and it’s a support service by families that are impacted significantly by a cancer diagnosis,” McGowan says. “This service helps them maintain at least a piece of their normal ‘living’ if you will.”
The Joy Bus is currently serving seven cancer patients, but Caraway says she’ll help anyone who is home-bound; the main emphasis is on cancer because of Joy’s affliction. Most of the clients are recommended through physicians or medical experts, but a client eligibility form is available on the Joy Bus’s website.
“The only reason I would deny anyone is that I can’t afford to feed them,” Caraway says. “Right now I can fit probably two more people in, but I wouldn’t deny anybody; I’d just end up paying for it out of my own purse.”
So far, Caraway has been financing the Joy Bus off a donation by the Case Management Society of America’s Arizona Chapter.
As for meals, each meal costs between $5 and $10 to produce, Caraway says.
“I tell her to cook like I do,” Kantak says. “I try to make people happy.”
Caraway is picky and cognoscente about the food and service she gives, and tries to use the healthiest ingredients at her disposal, McGowan says. Most of the foods Caraway cooks contain a focus around increasing a patient’s protein, vegetable and legume intake.
Caraway says although some of the ingredients can get expensive when cooking for seven people, Joy inspired her to continue operating the Joy Bus regardless of the financial challenge.
“I am never ever, ever going to get to a position where I have to charge somebody for a meal,” Caraway says. “I don’t care if I have to do car washes every week, there’s no way in hell I would charge somebody for the service that I’m doing; they’re going through so much already. It’s not even an option.”