She slipped away peacefully on Monday, this model of compassion and service, but the bright beacon of hope she lit in a dark world will shine brightly forever; and the practical, real-world help she provided to the helpless will continue to bless lives.
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.
That something, which began with Ruth's delivery of hot meals to seven people, became Project Open Hand.
Such a modest beginning. Today, Project Open Hand still delivers hot meals, as well as operating a walk-in facility where those without other resources can get a bag of groceries or prepared meals ready for cooking, tailored to one's individual health needs and living situation — along with smiles and kind words for people who get too little of either.
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 100 other organizations throughout the U.S. as well as the United Kingdom and South Africa, bringing people together to provide nutrition with compassion to their neighbors in need.
I need to interrupt here with a personal story.
Bill Ambrunn, an attorney who worked for several years at the agency, praised Ms. Brinker.
"Not only did Ruth start Project Open Hand, but Project Open Hand quickly became a model for HIV/AIDS service providers all over the country," he said.
"Let me just say this – I have walked in the Pride Parade with many, many contingents, including with popular elected officials and celebrities. But it was never like the experience walking with Ruth as part of the POH contingent," Ambrunn said. "All along the parade route, you could hear people crying out, 'We love you Ruth. Thank you Ruth.' People clapped and cheered enthusiastically for the tiny little lady waving from the car. They knew her and knew her story and loved her. Even if they didn't actually know her, many of them knew people she helped care for."
That's how I first heard of Ruth, as I stood teary-eyed on Market Street one long-ago June Sunday, watching that "tiny little lady" pass by to the deafening, heartfelt roar of the multitude. She inspired me to get involved.
I volunteered for the Academy of Friends Oscar parties, events which raised thousands of dollars for POH. And more directly, if on a much more modest scale, I hosted (or co-hosted) private fundraisers among my own circle of acquaintances.
But here's the thing: I was young, carefree, and focused primarily on my own career and social life; in truth, it's a wonder that anything could pierce the shell I'd constructed for myself. Ruth Brinker did. And I recount this not to pat myself on the back for the good I accomplished (which, God knows, was little enough), but as background to what came after.
The time eventually came when I found myself poor, diagnosed with AIDS myself, and hungry. One-bowl-of-plain-rice-per-day hungry. I became a client, and Project Open Hand saved my life, without costing me whatever tattered dignity I had left. And as I write this I'm weeping with gratitude in remembrance of Ruth.
“I didn’t think I was doing anything special,” Ruth said. “I did what anyone would have done under those circumstances.”
I respectfully disagree. What Ruth did was the very definition of something special.