The Retired Grandma Who Transformed HIV Care in Her Community

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A senior woman with styled, short grey hair half-smiles, chin resting on right hand. She is wearing pearls and a sweater.

In 1985, America was in the midst of scrambling to figure out how to tackle AIDS. It was the year that Ronald Reagan was finally forced to publicly acknowledge the disease; the year of the very first International AIDS Conference; the year Rock Hudson died, leaving $250,000 behind to set up the American Foundation for AIDS Research; and the year retired grandmother Ruth Brinker decided something must be done to assist people with HIV in the community.

At the time, fear around AIDS was at an all-time high. Time magazine published an article in September '85, documenting the hysteria and misinformation that was gripping communities nationwide. Subjects in the piece included a bishop who had stopped using the communion cup; a card player who had started wearing gloves during games; and schools with very low attendance rates because of fear of infection. Elsewhere, 13-year-old Ryan White was excluded from his Indiana middle school after contracting the virus from a blood transfusion.

Brinker, a San Francisco resident, was acutely aware of these problems, but when one of her neighbors with HIV died of malnutrition, it was the last straw. Brinker began making and delivering meals to seven others in her vicinity who were too sick to get to a grocery store, or even cook at all. As word spread about her good deeds, it became apparent that demand for the service was too great for Brinker to handle alone. Thanks to a $2000 grant and some donated kitchen equipment, she put out a call for volunteers and set up Project Open Hand, the first ever non-profit to provide food and nutritional information to people living with HIV.

Brinker had moved to the city from Hartford, South Dakota at the age of 33. Two years later, she married her husband, Jack, with whom she had two daughters. The Brinkers owned and ran an antique store, but by the mid-1970s, Ruth was managing a Meals on Wheels center. That led to a later position as director for a homeless food program at Trinity Church. These jobs undoubtedly provided the inspiration for Project Open Hand.


Not only did Brinker understand the importance of providing food to those in need, she also understood that the human touch was essential too. She encouraged volunteers to spend time with the people they were delivering food to.

The impact of the organization was swift and deeply felt. In 1989, POH expanded to also serve Alameda County. That same year, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the project provided food to residents whose houses had been destroyed. The following year, it joined forces with the seven-year-old Food Bank at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which, at that time, was already distributing bags of groceries to 600 people every week. By 2000, Project Open Hand was also serving seniors in over 20 San Francisco locations, and people with all manner of debilitating diseases (cancer and heart disease included).

Today, Project Open Hand is still thriving, providing an astonishing 2,600 meals and 200 bags of groceries per day, seven days a week, thanks to the tireless efforts of 110 staff members, and the 125 dedicated volunteers that show up daily. But it's also reliant on the kindness of the community; two thirds of its funding comes from public donations. Its success has inspired the founding of "dozens" of similar organizations across the country, as well as in places as far flung as the UK and South Africa.

For a period in the '90s, Brinker also set up and ran Fresh Start Farms, a 1/4-acre plot on the corner of Ellis and Divisadero that grew designer greens (including nasturtium, mustard, rosemary, borage, and calendula) to sell to high-end restaurants. The farm exclusively employed refugees and people recovering from periods of homelessness. But it is Project Open Hand that Brinker will always be best remembered for.

Ruth Marie Brinker died on August 13, 2011 at the age of 89. The outpouring after her death was enormous.

“I have walked in the Pride Parade with many, many contingents," attorney Bill Ambrunn said, "including with popular elected officials and celebrities. But it was never like the experience walking with Ruth as part of the POH contingent. 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."

Brinker remained modest throughout her life, regardless of the appreciation she received from others. "I always try to do things that need to be done," she told The Noe Valley Voice in 2006. "It seemed to me that this needed to be done, and I did it."

For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here