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Remembering Ruth Brinker

August 29, 2011

(Michael Seltzer is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he wrote about philanthropy and the LGBT rights movement.)

Ruth_Brinker When Ruth Brinker founded Project Open Hand in San Francisco in 1985, she could not have foreseen the day that the nation's leading meals-on-wheels program for people living with AIDS would become a disaster-relief organization.

Four years later, on October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck Northern California. The Marina district of San Francisco was particularly devastated. Numerous homes were destroyed or damaged, leaving residents without food or shelter. Like many other nimble nonprofit organizations, Project Open Hand acted quickly. From its kitchen in the Mission District, which had come through the quake unscathed, volunteers rushed to deliver meals to earthquake survivors using BART. In many cases, Project Open Hand was the first organization to arrive on the scene with assistance.

When I first heard this story, I was serving as the executive director of Funders Concerned About AIDS and was reminded of words from the report of the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus issued on June 24, 1988. In the report, Admiral James D. Watkins, whom President Ronald Reagan had appointed to chair the commission, noted that "The spark of human spirit...rises high when faced with the gravest of human tragedies...."

Earlier this month, Ruth Brinker passed away peacefully at the Eden Villa Assisted Living Center in San Francisco. In the difficult days ahead, as people up and down the Eastern Seaboard scramble to recover from the damage caused by Hurrican Irene, Brinker's spirit will live on in the small acts of countless neighbors and nonprofit organizations across the region.

Below is a tribute to Ruth from Tom Nolan, Project Open Hand's current executive director.

Dear Friends of Project Open Hand,

On August 8, 2011, Ruth Brinker, Founder of Project Open Hand, passed away peacefully at Eden Villa Assisted Living Center in San Francisco.

In 1985, having retired from a career in food services, Ruth heard about a neighbor who died of AIDS. She was shocked to discover that malnutrition was as much the cause of her neighbor's death as the illness itself. She realized that many others living with AIDS were in the same situation and she knew she could do something. Ruth began preparing meals in her kitchen and delivering them to seven people. That number soon grew and others came to volunteer to help her cook and deliver hot, nourishing meals all over San Francisco to people living alone and struggling with a devastating illness. "I didn't think I was doing anything special," Ruth said.  "I did what anyone would have done under those circumstances."  With this simple act of kindness, repeated day after day with compassion and care, Project Open Hand was born.

When Ruth delivered her meals, she took the time to talk with each person and help each feel loved and cared for.  For Ruth, it was more than nutritious, dependable food.  It was "meals with love."

From Ruth's vision evolved an organization, supported by a generous community and dedicated volunteers and staff, who provide daily nutrition and compassion to some of the most vulnerable individuals in our community: people living with HIV/AIDS, the homebound, critically ill with any serious illness, and seniors throughout San Francisco and Alameda County, totaling over 7,000 people every year. Her vision has gone on to inspire over a hundred other organizations throughout the U.S. as well as [in] the United Kingdom and South Africa, bringing people together to provide nutrition with compassion to their neighbors in need.

All of us who knew Ruth and have shared in her work over the years will miss her, but we know that, as long as her vision continues, her wonderful spirit will live on. 

Tom Nolan
Executive Director
Project Open Hand

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