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.