Jennifer Van Wyk Takes the Reins of Open Arms

Meet the Plymouth resident taking the helm of this Minneapolis nonprofit
Jennifer Van Wyk who graduated from the University of Minnesota with English and communications degrees, has spent her post-college career in the nonprofit sector most recently at Open Arms.

Is there anything more basic or essential to life than a healthy meal?

Providing wholesome food to those affected by serious and life-threatening diseases is the mission of Open Arms Minnesota, a unique nonprofit organization based in south Minneapolis. Since November, Plymouth resident Jennifer Van Wyk has been the organization’s acting executive director.

Open Arms is the only nonprofit organization in Minnesota that prepares and delivers free meals specifically tailored to meet the nutrition needs of individuals with chronic and progressive illnesses, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis or ALS. Open Arms doesn’t just serve the person who is ill; the organization delivers meals to anyone in a household affected by disease, including caregivers and dependent children. Its network of nearly 1,500 volunteers helps prepare meals in its Minneapolis kitchen seven days a week, and delivers them throughout the Twin Cities area.

An Owatonna native who’s lived in Plymouth since 2001 with her husband Dave and 4-year-old daughter Sosi, Van Wyk first became involved with Open Arms when she joined the organization's volunteer board of directors in 2003. Two years, later, she joined the staff as deputy director.

Since graduating with an English and Communications degree from the University of Minnesota, Van Wyk has spent her post-college career working as a development specialist at the nonprofit University of Minnesota Foundation and the local chapter of the American Heart Association before joining the staff at Open Arms.

After working for a national organization, Van Wyk says she enjoys the local, grassroots focus of her current employer. “Working for a local organization really brings to the forefront how we impact people on a daily basis,” she says.

Open Arms began in 1986 when its founder, Bill Rowe, cooked a meal in his apartment and brought it to a friend with HIV/AIDS.

Today it provides meals to more than 700 people weekly. Rowe realized theneed for expansion since those with HIV/AIDS were often isolated and did not have strong support systems. Rowe enlisted the help of his friends and word spread about the growing venture.

Open Arms moved into its current headquarters building in March 2010, and last year, Senator Amy Klobuchar delivered its 2 millionth meal. To identify local recipients, the organization uses a client referral program and partners with doctors, nurses and case managers to find clients that may qualify for the program. Open Arms also works with several nonprofit organizations in sub-Saharan Africa to provide food and nutrition to people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

In the current economy, nonprofits have faced the same challenges as businesses in the for-profit world. One difference is the dedication of the people involved in their causes, Van Wyk says: “We have people who want to, versus people who have to. That makes a tremendous difference on the organizational culture. Some magic happens when it all comes together.”

Van Wyk stresses the importance of the group’s active volunteers in enabling Open Arms to carry out its mission. “We couldn’t operate one day without them,” she says. “There are a lot of foodies in our community who like to take their skills and love for food, and turn them into nutrition for our clients.” Some even grow herbs and vegetables on Open Arms’ 2-acre organic farm in Belle Plaine, Minn., aptly named Open Farms.

The volunteers staff well-established delivery routes that cover just about every part of the Twin Cities, including Plymouth, yet the organization always can use more volunteers, she notes. “Everyone should have access to the right amount of good food in times when they need it most.”