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By Lorraine Sanders
Ruth Brinker's love for blueberries began when she was a little girl growing up in the northernmost parts of the U.S. Midwest. Armed with Sears, Roebuck and Co. pails, Brinker and her brother enjoyed picking the plump berries. They often deposited the spoils in their mouths, instead of the buckets.
"There's nothing to compare with blueberries up near the Canadian border," Brinker says.
On one such excursion, Brinker's father drove his two children to a patch, and left them to pick on their own.
When he returned to pick them up in his Model T Ford, he noticed another picker had joined the children. But this was no ordinary berry picker stocking up on filling for homemade pies. The newcomer was a bear.
Only after answering their father's abrupt summons to return immediately to the car did Brinker and her brother realize that they had been rummaging for berries right alongside a hungry black bear.
That day, Brinker's innate ability to focus on the task at hand, regardless of potential obstacles, resulted in a pail (and a stomach) full of blueberries gathered right in the presence of a oft-feared wild animal.
Decades later, that same determination and focus would appear again. But this time, Brinker set her sights on a mysterious and frightening disease.
Brinker, 83, is the founder of San Francisco's Project Open Hand, the first-ever non-profit organization to provide hot meals, groceries, and nutrition counseling to people with HIV/AIDS. Twenty years ago, Open Hand served only those stricken with AIDS. But beginning in 2000, the organization expanded its eligibility requirements to include all homebound and critically ill Bay Area residents. Cities around the world have since modeled similar programs after Project Open Hand.
Brinker, who is a 2005 recipient of a Jefferson Award for public service, lived in Bernal Heights for many years, but spent last fall living in Noe Valley with her daughter and son-in-law, Lisa and Patrick Monk, after a fire damaged her longtime residence. In December 2005, Brinker relocated to the Laguna Grove Care Senior Community in Hayes Valley.
At first glance, Brinker may seem an unlikely leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Petite with a wholesome look that initially conceals her feisty sense of humor, Brinker was already a retired grandmother and widow when she started Project Open Hand in 1985. She had little money to spare. Her only business experience came from the several years she spent running her own antique shop. But she had volunteered for Meals on Wheels, and she knew how to cook.
"I have to thank my previous husband," Brinker says with her characteristic wit. "He never made any money, but he always insisted on eating delicious meals. I have to thank him, because he brought me up to be a good cook."
Brinker made the decision to start delivering meals to a small number of clients after realizing that many of the city's gay men, a community she'd gotten to know through chatting with regular customers at her antique shop, were dying not only from a little understood disease called AIDS, but also from added complications brought on by malnutrition.
At a time when many people were afraid to be in the same room with someone diagnosed with AIDS, Brinker felt no fear.
"I knew that I didn't know much about [AIDS], and I knew that the people who were supposed to understand these things also didn't know much about it. All I could do was follow my gut," she says.
A few months after she began cooking and delivering meals, Brinker was able to move Project Open Hand into a local church and start enlisting volunteers. Within three years, what began as one woman's attempt to nurture and care for people with HIV/AIDS had grown into an organization serving 500 meals a day.
Today Project Open Hand's Polk Street headquarters houses a kitchen and food bank, and offers nutrition education services to clients. A second kitchen in Oakland serves homebound and critically ill Alameda County residents. The organization also serves lunch to seniors in over 20 San Francisco locations.
Looking back on Project Open Hand's incredible journey, Brinker says she never anticipated the program's success.
"I was really surprised at how it expanded and how appreciative people were," she says.
She is especially proud that places outside of San Francisco, including some European countries, have developed their own meal delivery programs for people with HIV/AIDS based on Project Open Hand's model.
While Brinker is recognized for creating a revolutionary program that has grown immensely over the past two decades and served millions of meals to people in need, she still views the project with refreshing simplicity.
Brinker says, "I always try to do things that need to be done, and it seemed to me that this needed to be done, and I did it."