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Cynthia Laird, Bay Area Reporter: Open Hand founder Ruth Brinker dies

Open Hand founder Ruth Brinker dies
by Cynthia Laird, August 11, 2011

Ruth Brinker, the retired grandmother who in 1985 started delivering meals to people living with AIDS and went on to found Project Open Hand, died Monday, August 8 at the Eden Villa Assisted Living Facility in San Francisco. She was 89.

Ms. Brinker, who had retired from a career in food services, heard about a neighbor who had died of AIDS. She was shocked to discover that malnutrition was as much a cause of her neighbor’s death as the illness itself, and started preparing meals in her kitchen and delivering them to seven people, according to a statement on Project Open Hand’s website. Soon, of course, that number grew and others came to help her cook and deliver hot, nutritious meals throughout San Francisco.

She started the agency with those seven clients and $2,000 from the San Francisco Zen Center and the Golden Gate Business Association. It later moved to Trinity Episcopal Church.

In 1987, with a $125,000 donation from the Chevron Corporation, the agency moved into a new kitchen and took over a food bank at 17th and Church streets. By 1988, Project Open Hand was serving 500 meals a day. In 1991 it served its one-millionth meal

Tom Nolan, the executive director of Project Open Hand, said in an email Wednesday that he and Bob Brenneman, development and marketing director, had visited Ms. Brinker Monday afternoon, shortly before she died.

“Ruth truly made a big difference in many people’s lives, certainly including my own,” Nolan wrote.

Nolan, who was in Boston attending an annual meeting of agencies like Project Open Hand, said that now there are more than 100 similar organizations in the United States and increasingly around the world, including the United Kingdom and South Africa.

“Ruth was a real hero,” Nolan added.

Today, Nolan said, Ms. Brinker’s vision has evolved as Project Open Hand now serves meals and provides groceries not only to people living with HIV/AIDS, but also to those who are critically ill, homebound, and seniors. Brenneman said that for a time, Ms. Brinker was herself an Open Hand client.

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 waiving 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.”

Officials from other San Francisco AIDS organizations paid tribute to Ms. Brinker.

“Ruth’s vision of delivering meals with love sparked an organization and a movement,” said Neil Giuliano, CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “Her legacy will live on not just in Project Open Hand, but in the hundreds of meal-delivery organizations worldwide that she inspired and the millions of people who have received food and love because of Ruth.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee issued a statement Tuesday expressing sadness at the passing of Ms. Brinker.

“I am deeply saddened by the passing last night of Ruth Brinker, a truly inspirational woman who provided nourishment to the sick and dying,” the mayor said.

There were growing pains when Ms. Brinker headed Project Open Hand. The agency was investigated for financial improprieties in the late 1980s or early 1990s but was cleared, according to a 1996 San Francisco Chronicle interview with Nolan. In 1989 Steve Burns was brought on as chief operating officer and he and Ms. Brinker ran the organization as a “tandem management” team, with Ms. Brinker concentrating on fundraising and Burns doing the day-to-day management.

Nolan said Wednesday that while he had no first-hand knowledge of the agency’s activities before he became executive director, he said the agency was growing rapidly in its early years.

“For funding Ruth and the cooks would go to gay bars, passing the hat,” Nolan said, “then Ruth would tell them to go out and buy 100 pounds of potatoes, for example. If one had to choose between being a perfect accountant and taking care of those who were gravely ill, she chose the latter.”

“I never heard accusations of personal gain,” Nolan added.

Nolan was named executive director of the agency in 1994, after serving for several years on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

Ms. Brinker was born on May 1, 1922 in South Dakota and moved to San Francisco in the mid-1950s.

Last year Project Open Hand honored Ms. Brinker with its Visionary Award in recognition of her courage and compassion. She received numerous awards during her life, including from the National AIDS Memorial Grove and the Jefferson Award. To continue her legacy, the agency will rename its Visionary Award in honor of Ms. Brinker.

Ms. Brinker is survived by her daughters Lisa Brinker and Sarah Brinker, and by her grandson, Max Corso and great-granddaughter, Bailey Corso. A public celebration of Ms. Brinker’s life will be held September 16. People can checkwww.openhand.org soon for the place and time.

The family requests that those who wish to honor Ms. Brinker make contributions to Project Open Hand atwww.openhand.org/donate.

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