Today I learned of a sad event that happened this past August 8.
Ruth Brinker, founder of Project Open Hand “passed away peacefully at Eden Villa Assisted Living Center in San Francisco.”
What is most sad for me about Mrs. Brinker’s passing is that I never had the opportunity to say to her personally, “Thank you. Thank you, Ruth Brinker for helping me live!”
How did this retired food services worker whom I have never nor will ever meet help save my life, you ask?
The answer is simple.
In 1985, Ruth learned that a friend and neighbor had passed away from complications from AIDS. One of those complications, she learned, was malnutrition. With her knowledge and experience with healthy food preparation, she started cooking meals in her own kitchen for seven other people who were afflicted with the virus. When she would deliver those meals, she would sit with people and take the time to talk to each them in a way that made them feel and know that they were “loved and cared for.” According to a tribute written by Tom Nolan, Executive Director of POH from 1994 until the end of this year, Ruth’s sincere compassion is what gave POH its tagline “Meals with Love”.
It is not surprising as we look back that the numbers of meals grew from those initial half dozen plus one to numbers for which she required (and received) volunteers to help with the meal preparation.
Today, 25-years later, the organization this amazing woman started initially to provide nourishment to those living with HIV/AIDS has expanded to the level at which it now provides “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.” In addition, her simple concept has been instituted not only in over one-hundred other organizations throughout the United States as well as in other countries like the United Kingdom and South Africa.
The fact about Ruth that I find most amazing is that she said, “I didn’t think I was doing anything special.” She was also quoted as saying, “I did what anyone would have done under those circumstances.” I find this to be amazing because, it seems clear to me, that it was not just anyone who did what she did. She did it. Ruth Brinker took the compassion within her and turned it into a life-saving project that has continued, and will surely continue, beyond her physical existence. It is because of her love for her friends that so many people she never met will be able to lead healthy and productive lives.
As a beneficiary of the grocery and meal programs provided by POH, I can testify to their value; there have been several times when I was too ill to take it upon myself to prepare my own meal. Moreover, during those times, when I would make myself something to eat, it would usually be a bowl of pre-sweetened cereal, a pint of ice cream or a box of saltines. I was not getting the proper nourishment necessary for a proper recovery from whichever respective ailment I was suffering.
It was the meals and food provided by POH that helped bring me back to a level of health at which I have been able to once again be a productive member of society – at least to the extent at which I am able. I honestly believe that had it not been for POH and the services they provide (not to mention several incredible primary medical providers), I would not be here today to extol the hard yet desperately needed work of an organization that helps so many.
I feel I would be remiss if I did not point out that even though I have referred to POH in a way that makes it seem as if the organization itself and/or the building in which it is located is currently doing the work. POH is actually people. POH, and organizations like it, is made of people who, like Ruth Brinker, have realized the importance of reaching out and helping their neighbors in need. Therefore, as much as the organization as an entity deserves praise, it is the people who make sure it continues to exist (everyone from the past, current and incoming Executive Directors to the support staff to the cooks and to the volunteers) who deserve the admiration and gratitude of everyone who has benefited from their efforts.
I believe it also goes without saying that, it is Ruth Brinker, the woman whose heart is so big that it will live forever, deserves the highest praise of all.
That is why, even though I was unable to say it in person, I would like to say it now before the entire world:
Thank you, Ruth Brinker! Thank you for gracing us with your life!