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After the lasagna’s made, coordination is a mouse-click away

By Rina Rapuano,

Judith and David Pryor are accustomed to being the strong ones. Their only son, Hampton, was born 16 years ago with a severe genetic disorder called Mowat-Wilson syndrome, a rare condition that makes him unable to walk, talk or use his hands.

And while Judith credits her friends and family with providing an excellent support system, the couple — married for 20 years this May — describe themselves as fiercely independent.

“I think I’m pretty notorious for not asking for help,” says Judith, 48, who lives with her family in the District’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. “Over the years with Hampton, we’ve just gotten good at managing.”

But when Hampton experienced life-threatening complications after spinal surgery late last year, the couple’s friends wondered how best to help the Pryors. “We said, ‘Please don’t visit us in the hospital.’ It was too traumatic,” Judith says. “You end up reassuring them that everything is okay, and you’re not sure that it is.”

As days turned into weeks, it became clear what the Pryors needed: food at home. Friends turned to SignUpGenius.com, a virtual signup sheet that organizes neighborly efforts.

SignUpGenius’s creator, Dan Rutledge, says he never imagined all the ways people would use the site when it launched in 2008. He was just looking for a better system for keeping track of soccer-game snacks and church functions. Now he regularly receives e-mails describing creative applications that include coordinating progressive dinners and helping an entire California town plan a fundraiser for a sick child.

“I never expected something like that, and it’s very humbling to be able to help in those kinds of ways,” says Rutledge, 39, of Charlotte, N.C., where his company, Skylark, is based. SignUpGenius is free for users; the site is supported by advertising sales.

Since the launch, he says, there has been a definite growth in sites like his and in the demand for more of them. Rutledge says people are increasingly plugging phrases such as “online sign-up sheet” or “sign-up utility” into Web search engines.

On his site, users can watch how-to videos throughout the signup process, and there’s a “Planning Resources” tab with tips on how to organize volunteer efforts, parties and taking meals to friends.

In cases like the Pryors’, it’s up to the organizer to alert the family in need; discuss dates that require meal coverage and preferences regarding packaging or ingredients; and decide who should be contacted for donations. Once the e-mail goes out, friends can visit the site, choose a meal date and slot, and then follow the personal requests outlined in the message from the organizer. On SignUpGenius, the link goes dormant about a month after an event but can be reactivated. There is no charge for the service.

For almost six weeks, the Pryors would return from the hospital to find meals left in a cooler by the garage, sometimes with a bottle of wine, recipes, messages of support, flowers and reheating instructions.

“In a way, it kind of became something to look forward to every night,” says Judith. “The surprise, and the appreciation of the love being shared for Hampton and for us . . . . It’s totally amazing, and I still can’t not cry when I talk about it.”

When Hampton finally was able to come home from the hospital, the food kept coming, nourishing the whole family as he healed.

“Some of it was homemade. Some of it came from Listrani’s, Maggiano’s,” says David, 51. “Some people would print out the menus. It was incredible. And [they brought] some really good wine, too.”

A friend of the Pryors’ learned about the service when another friend was recuperating from surgery, but it’s not just catastrophe that brings out the desire to help. Similar sites have caught on in new-parent circles, helping families cope with those chaotic, sleep-deprived first weeks after a birth.

It was through her work as a doula, or birth coach, that Alexandria resident Camilla Yrure, 26, owner of Revel Birth Services, found out about the service. She did a Google search before the recent birth of her second child and chose TakeThemaMeal.com because, she says, it looked modern and easy to use.

That business, based in Harrisonburg, Va., allows users not only to sign up to bring their own foods, but also to order care packages ($29.95 to $31.95 per delivery) that include a frozen soup, a nine-grain boule and ready-to-bake cookies that are Fed-Ex’ed from Shenandoah Valley-based A Bowl of Good.

About a dozen of Yrure’s friends used the site to organize meal deliveries, and a couple of them opted for the soup-delivery package. “That first two weeks, it was really nice to know that meals were taken care of,” says Yrure, who also has a 2-year-old daughter.

She recommends that recipients let helpers know of any restrictions, dietary or otherwise.

“I tried to share with people that we don’t have a lot of space,” so containers needed to be disposable, she says. “We don’t have a microwave, either. Just an oven and a stove top.”

Similarly, 32-year-old Capitol Hill resident Dru Murphy, who used the site MealBaby.com when her second child was born eight months ago, recommends communicating food aversions, such as her dislike of eggs.

Of the five or so meals that were brought to her family, Murphy says, they especially enjoyed a batch of chili made with sweet potatoes, and a friend’s pulled-pork family recipe that uses Guinness. “It’s a great way to get introduced to things you’ve never had,” she says. “People had free rein over preparing whatever they wanted.”

The mother of two says that the Web site e-mailed her when donors signed up and that, like the Pryors, she enjoyed the fun of the system almost as much as the food. “It was like a gift in your e-mail,” she says, and remembers thinking, “Yay! There’s food coming today!”

As it happens, virtual sign-up services have a positive effect on the donors as well.

“I thought it was just so efficient and unobtrusive to the family we were trying to help,” says Kristin Solheim, a friend of the Pryors whose idea to use SignUpGenius got the effort underway. You “feel like you’re doing something at a time when you’re feeling pretty helpless.”

Rapuano, a Washington freelancer, reviews restaurants for the Food section’s Good to Go column.

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