Sometimes all you need is a little joy—and sometimes that joy comes in the form of food and conversation. The Joy Bus Diner in Phoenix is a 100 percent nonprofit restaurant founded by Jennifer Caraway in 2011. While the pandemic has currently closed the brick-and-mortar space, every cent customers spend at the restaurant when it is open goes towards delivering chef-inspired, healthy meals to local homebound cancer patients. The Joy Bus Diner’s farm-fresh, from-scratch menu includes a variety of breakfast and lunch options.

When Caraway’s friend Joy became ill with ovarian cancer, Caraway began making and delivering food to Joy. Caraway conducted research to see if there were any organizations that brought good food to the ill, and although an organization like Meals on Wheels helps those who are in desperate need of food, Caraway wanted to create an organization where she cooked food she would want to eat while helping people with compromised immune systems. “Once I couldn’t find it, so I created it,” Caraway said.

Committed to their vision of providing #MoreThanAMeal, the organization’s volunteers go to patient’s homes once a week and provide a well check when delivering food. For some, the volunteers that deliver the food are the patient’s only visitors. “We’re not only providing that well check for them, we’re providing them companionship because our volunteers are amazing. They’re the reason we exist,” Caraway said. “Even some of our patients who have a support system, those people have heard those stories a million times,” Caraway said. “So it’s cool to have a fresh face walk in your door that you can release some of that energy towards.”

The volunteers get to bond with the patients when delivering the food. One of the patients that is now out of treatment goes golfing with their volunteer every Sunday. “I think the most important thing that the volunteers brought was that companionship,” Caraway said. “They build lifelong friendships.”

Caraway praises her volunteers for turning her idea into a successful business. They provided ideas that helped the organization become what it is today. “I didn’t think of everything that was important,” Caraway said. “Thankfully, I surround myself with super intelligent human beings who did. That’s why we’re here eight years later.”

Caraway has learned a lot along the way about how she should run her organization. Patients would be honest with her by sharing certain ingredients to use on the menu based on how their bodies’ react during treatment. As a way to educate patients about the meals, the volunteer will choose one menu item and explain the health benefits to patients while they are undergoing certain parts of treatment.

“It’s a treat,” Caraway said. “We’re not there everyday. We’re not keeping anyone alive. We’re just letting them know that we care about them and this is the kind of food you should be putting into your body.”

Caraway and her volunteers cater their service to each patient’s individual needs. One patient Caraway used to deliver food to was not comfortable with how she looked when she started cancer treatments. Caraway would call this patient every day when leaving the diner and talk to her on the phone during the drive to her house. She would put the bag of food outside the patient’s door and then continue to talk to her on the phone during the drive to her next delivery.

“That’s what she needed,” Caraway said. “She needed the food because she loved food, but she needed the interaction.”

This organization has built a sense of community where people can feel like they are a part  of the mission. Many of the customers come to The Joy Bus Diner four to five times a week—and some come every day just to hang out. “There’s no other place in town you can go sit at a table and just cry or laugh,” Caraway said.

The Joy Bus has Hospice representatives come in to council their staff on how to interact with their patients to create a comfortable environment for them to discuss how their treatment is going. “This is a very safe place for people to just come and share,” Caraway said.

When the organization started delivering to more patients, they needed a dedicated space to prepare the food as Caraway was making the meals from her home kitchen. With Caraway’s background in cooking and managing restaurants, she proposed to her board the idea of opening a restaurant to the public with 100 percent of the proceeds going to fund their free programs.

“Somebody who can’t donate hundreds of dollars to big organizations can come here and order a plate of biscuits and gravy and know that the proceeds are going to something bigger than that,” Caraway said.

When the diner opened over three years ago, they were making 12-15 home visits every week; now, they are up to about 50 home visits per week.

The Joy Bus also participates in many health fairs throughout the year and partners with local hospitals which have the organization’s client eligibility form on file and refer patients to the organization. The Joy Bus Diner also hosts an annual gala in November which was sponsored by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019, leading to the most successful year yet in funds raised.

With recent success, Caraway hopes The Joy Bus Diner will be able to serve the community for a long time. “I just want to make sure that we’re able to do it forever,” Caraway said. “It’s really hard when you’re giving away a product and operating a business to give everything away. It’s very difficult to survive. I’ll be super stoked if 20 years from now we’re still in the community helping people in need.”